In 2003, Benjamin E. Mays High School captured the Class 4A state basketball championship, and Oliver Banks coached that team.

Banks is also coaching this year’s second-ranked Lady Raiders (24-3), who take on No. 6 Dalton (25-4) today at 4 p.m. in the second round of the Class 4A State Tournament at the trade center.

“I think this is the best team I’ve had at Mays,” said Banks, who is in his 17th season as coach and seeking a second state title. “In 2003, we had nine players and we had a pretty big team. These kids are small and very quick. I’d rather have this type team.”

The Lady Raiders roll into town riding a 19-game winning streak, including last Saturday’s 76-64 first-round victory over Tucker.

Dalton has won seven of its last eight games and advanced to the second round with a 68-55 victory at Rockdale County

Despite shaky moments, especially at the free-throw line, the Lady Cats never trailed Rockdale and the opening win could be attributed to postseason experience. Dalton has appeared in 10 consecutive state tournaments with an overall record of 223-61 during that span — the first six years under Janette Carroll (126-42, .750 percent) and the last four under Jeff McKinney’s guidance (97-19, .836 percent), according to records provided by the two coaches.

But the challenge that Mays presents McKinney’s Lady Cats is very formidable.

“They have two Division I players in Nakitta Gartrell and Nakita Thomas, who have signed scholarships with North Carolina State and Richmond, respectively,” Jeff McKinney said. “They’re more solid than Rockdale. Against them, we can’t make the mistakes we did against Rockdale and win.”

Gartrell, a 5-foot-10 shooting guard, scored 39 points in the Lady Raiders’ win over Tucker. Four times this season she has scored at least 40 points, including 44 twice, and comes into the second round averaging 29 points per game. She scored 32 points last Feb. 19 in a 77-55 win over Northwest Whitfield in a first-round state tournament game.

Thomas, a 6-foot-2 post, averages 16 points.

Gartrell and Thomas were freshmen in 2003 when Mays claimed its only state championship.

“Coming into this season that’s all they talked about, winning it again,” said Banks, a teacher for 46 years. “They worked real hard with the younger players and all these girls like each other. We have good chemistry and that’s not always the case.”

Much of Dalton’s defensive effort on Gartrell will fall on the shoulders of junior guard Jerrica Johnson, who helped contain Rockdale’s best player, Angelique Burtts, last weekend.

“The best way to describe Gartrell is that she plays like a Division I boy,” McKinney said. “She elevates off the ground and can shoot inside and out. All that does is inspire Jerrica Johnson. Tell her that Gartrell is their main player and she gets excited. She loves a challenge.”

While Gartrell is the main cog in Mays’ success, the Lady Raiders are not a one-girl team, according to Banks.

“Nakitta can fill it up, that’s for sure,” Banks said. “But the thing is, we don’t have to depend on her. If she’s hot, she’s hot. If she’s not, somebody else will step up.”

In addition to Gartrell and Thomas, Banks will start three juniors — 5-6 guard Natasha Wright, 5-8 forward Danielle Shows and 5-5 guard Denisha Carter.

McKinney expects to open with Johnson, guard Whitney Mayo, the Lady Cats’ leading scorer, point guard Lacie Coquerille and posts Stephanie Susen and Liz Coffey.

The Lady Cats certainly expect a game dominated by quickness.

Banks could almost guarantee that.

“It will be a fast-paced game,” he said. “It’s probably going to be 32 minutes of pressure. We have 13 girls and just about all of them play.”

That’s what McKinney has seen while studying tapes of Mays.

“They defend you all over the floor,” he said. “They are similar to what we saw last weekend, but these girls are a step above Rockdale. We have to make our free throws and we can’t make mistakes because they will capitalize on them.

“I’m expecting a good ballgame. I think the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.”

Banks has not scouted or seen tapes of the Lady Cats, who suffered a 56-49 loss to Stone Mountain in the first round of last year’s state tournament.

“I know absolutely nothing about them,” said Banks, who coached the Sylvan High boys to a second-place finish in the 1988 state tournament. “It looks like we’ll go in blind, but that won’t change our way of playing. We’ll play our game because these girls have been real good at making adjustments.”

Mays’ three losses came during Christmas tournaments. The Lady Raiders came up short against Midfield (Ala.) High School, Beach High of Savannah and St. John’s High of New York.

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