It's time to separate the contenders from the pretenders in high school basketball.
With only two weeks left in the regular season, three local teams face critical region or subregion games tonight.
The Newton boys (16-3 overall, 7-2 in Region 2-AAAAA) host Stephenson (15-5, 7-2) in a key region contest.
The Alcovy boys (11-9 overall, 7-5 in Region 4-AAAA) hit the road for a critical matchup at Forest Park (9-8, 7-5).
On the girls side, Salem (20-2 overall, 5-0 in 8-AAAA South) looks to wrap up the subregion title at county rival Rockdale (4-18, 2-4).
In other action, Eastside plays host to Oconee County in Region 8-AAA. The Heritage squads have tonight off before finishing up Region 8-AAAA South play next week.
Tonight's girls games start at 7 followed by the boys at 8:30.
The biggest game on the schedule features the Newton boys battling Stephenson for sole possession of second place in Region 2-AAAAA.
If the Rams can win, they'll have a one-game lead over the Jaguars with four region games left to play.
Newton won the first meeting 70-65 in December at Stone Mountain. Derrick Henry led the Rams with 27 points and four rebounds.
Meanwhile, the Alcovy boys travel to Forest Park for a critical game in the jumbled Region 4-AAAA standings.
Right now, Jonesboro, at 8-4, holds a half-game lead over Stockbridge at 8-5 for first place. Alcovy, North Clayton and Forest Park are all a half-game behind Stockbridge in third place.
Earlier this season, Alcovy beat Forest Park 40-35 in Covington, overcoming a 22-13 halftime deficit. However, the Tigers had to forfeit the game later due to an ineligible player.
"The intensity of the game is definitely elevated due to the standings, but that just makes the wins more rewarding and the losses more problematic," Alcovy coach Eugene Brown said. "Of course, you would rather be four games up and cruising into the playoffs, but this situation gives you an opportunity to gain some momentum."
Brown said his squad must match its defensive effort from the first meeting.
"Duplicating our defensive effort of the first game against Forest Park is our top priority," he said. "We cannot try to outscore them. Our identity, as a team, is to limit the scoring opportunities while playing efficient offense."
On the other hand, Salem girls would like nothing better than to wrap up the subregion title tonight at Rockdale.
"It's important to win the subregion as it will give us a No. 1 seed going into the region tournament. A No. 1 seed in any tournament is good," Salem coach Bill Roberts said. "Also, it's a great accomplishment as a team to finish on top of the standings.
"It would be good to take care of it early. However, it's our goal as a team to take one game at a time and focus on getting better and coming out with a win."
Salem rolled to a 64-41 victory in the first meeting, getting 24 points and nine rebounds from Precious Elkins.
Roberts believes focus will be a key for his squad tonight.
"We will need to stick to the game that we play and not get caught up in the atmosphere," he said. "It's a Friday game against a rival. The gym will be full and loud. It's important to stay focused on our game."
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.