For the second straight round, Wheeler won a nail-biter to keep their state championship dreams alive, outlasting North Gwinnett 61-58 in Thursday’s Class AAAAAA quarterfinal.
“We’re moving on, and that’s all that matters at this point,” Wheeler coach Doug Lipscomb said. “It wasn’t always pretty (Thursday), but regardless of how it looked, we’re heading on, and I’m proud of our kids for that.”
The win advanced Wheeler, Class AAAAAA’s top-ranked team, into the state semifinals for the second straight season and for the 11th time in Lipscomb’s tenure at the school. The Wildcats will square off against Pebblebrook on Saturday, with tipoff set for 8:15 p.m. at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion.
“These guys have been to that game before,” said Lipscomb, whose team lost to Hillgrove in a similar all-Cobb County semifinal a year ago. “We have to get past (last year), though, come out and play hard.”
Wheeler’s win against North Gwinnett (27-4) came despite 18 turnovers — 12 in the first half — and their share of struggles from the free throw line, where they were 21-of-32.
Regardless, Wheeler never trailed and carried a 43-31 lead into the fourth quarter.
North Gwinnett eventually cut the lead to 50-47 when Malik Carter’s layup with 2:38 to play was interfered with and ruled goaltending.
On the ensuing possession, Jaylen Brown converted an acrobatic three-point play to push the Wildcat lead to 53-47.
A missed shot by North Gwinnet and quick foul put Wheeler in the driver’s seat to ice the game, but Daniel Giddens missed a pair from the line with just under 2 minutes left.
North Gwinnett’s T.J. Howard followed with a 15-foot jumper to cut the Wildcat lead to 53-49, and Wheeler’s Makhai Eastmond missed three of four free-throw attempts on the Wildcats’ next two possessions.
Ahmad Caver sandwiched a pair of free throws and a lay-up around two Brown free throws to narrow the deficit to 56-53. Eastmond then split a 1-and-1 situation at the line to give Wheeler a four-point lead with 18 seconds to play.
Owen Lewis’ jumper with 10 seconds left brought North Gwinnett within 57-55, but Jaye Stackhouse’s attempted foul of Brown on the ensuing inbound play was ruled an intentional foul –– granting Wheeler two free throws and possession of the ball.
Brown, who had a game-high 20 points and scored 17 in the second half, converted on both attempts. Avery Patterson followed with two free throws of his own to seal the game.
Patterson finished with 18 points, including three 3-pointers, and shot a perfect 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.
Caver led North Gwinnett with 20, Howard scored 15 and Carter scored 14.