The Wildcats have already proven that after winning five state championships, including four from 2002-09.
After advancing to the Class AAAAAA state semifinals a year ago, Wheeler’s players understood they let an opportunity at a sixth title slip through their fingers.
That misstep has been fuel for Wheeler this season, which will play Tift County for the Class AAAAAA state title tonight at the Macon Centreplex.
“When we made it to the final four last year, that’s when we knew we had the talent to win a state championship,” said senior guard Avery Patterson, who has signed to play at Western Kentucky. “Right at the beginning of the season, when practice started, we knew we could win. We just had to go to work.
“We’ve been focused since the beginning of the season to get to the final. We were all hungry. Now, we’re here and we want to finish the job.”
Senior forward Elijah Staley echoed Patterson’s sentiment.
“It feels great to be in the final,” said Staley, a Mississippi State signee for basketball and football. “We’ve had some hard practices, we’ve watched a lot of film and we’ve been game-planning all week. We’re focused and ready to go.”
Wheeler (27-5) and Tift County (28-3) have taken different paths to the championship.
Only one of Tift County’s four playoff victories has been by three points or less, while the Wildcats have endured two victories of three points or less, including a 93-90 triple-overtime win over Shiloh in the second round.
“Getting those close wins let us know what kind of mistakes we were making,” Staley said. “We’re held accountable for our mistakes and that’s helped us progress and get better as a team, knowing what we’re doing wrong.”
Wheeler has made it this far because the players believe in one another. Because everyone is held accountable, none of the players want to disappoint a teammate.
“It’s a family atmosphere in and outside the locker room,” Patterson said. “We get along at school and we go to each other’s houses and spend time with each other’s families. There’s a genuine friendship on the team and that helps with our chemistry on the court.”
Wheeler’s camaraderie and talent have improved since its last state championship in 2009. The Wildcats reached the second round of the playoff in 2010 and the quarterfinals in 2011. A second-round overtime loss in 2012 sparked last year’s state semifinal appearance.
“I’ve seen the program grow since my sophomore year,” said Staley, who played his freshman season at Harrison before transferring to the east Cobb school. “And the years I’ve been here, I’ve grown as a player, too. We get a lot of support from the students and the administration and the community. We’re just ready for (today).”
Tift County has also seen some playoff success over the years. The Blue Devils reached the second round in 2009 and ’10 and advanced to the quarterfinals in 2011 and ’13. Tift County suffered a first-round loss in 2012.
The Blue Devils won their only state championship as a Class AAA program in 1996.
Tift County reached the championship game by defending Class AAAAAA champion Norcross 78-70 in last week’s semifinal.
Staley understands that he and his Wheeler teammates will have to play to their strengths to overcome the Blue Devils.
“Our strength is in our transition game,” he said. “We like to get up and down the court. Focusing on our defense and rebounding will also be key for us.
“We know each other so well offensively, and if we play great defense, we can stop other people from scoring. If we play hard and fast and attack the basket, I think we’ll be victorious.”