Wheeler had an opportunity to tie the game, but Love made only one of two free throws with 9.3 seconds on the clock, leaving Hillgrove with a 55-54 advantage.
Keith Ray, who finished with eight points, made the second of his two free throws to put the Hawks up by two, and Love’s shot hit the front of the rim. That sent Hillgrove into celebration and into the state championship game for the first time in the program’s history.
“We just needed Keith to make one of his two free throws, and we just didn’t want to give up a 3 at the end because, if they get that, they win,” the Hawks’ Kyle Castlin said. “We just had to dig in and play our best defense on that possession. Luckily, (Love) missed the shot.
“Wheeler’s a great team, and they played a great game. It was meant for us to win, I guess. We all believe in each other, and God just has something special planned for us.”
The Hawks (28-4) will face Norcross in next Saturday’s Class AAAAAA final at the Macon Centreplex. The Blue Devils prevented an all-Region 4AAAAAA championship from taking place by beating North Cobb in the other semifinal.
Castlin paced Hillgrove with 20 points, including 10 in the third period. He also had eight rebounds, two assists and four steals.
“This feels so good,” Castlin said. “The boys have never played for a state championship at Hillgrove. We were the first team to make it to the final four, and now we’re the first to play for a championship. I’m just really excited.”
B.J. Brown scored nine of his 17 points in the fourth quarter and added seven rebounds and three assists. John Franklin finished with seven points, seven boards and two assists.
Aside from a few runs from both teams, the game was close throughout, with Hillgrove leading 11-10 at the end for the first period and 22-20 at halftime. Wheeler (21-9) tied the contest at 39-all entering the fourth quarter.
The Hawks scored nine straight points during an 11-2 run at the start of the second quarter, for a 22-12 lead. Two of Castlin’s three 3-pointers, coupled with a 3-pointer from Shamari Southwell, contributed to the run.
Field goals from Jaylen Brown and Love, an intentional-foul call on Hillgrove and a charging call helped Wheeler make four of six free throws down the stretch, resulting in the halftime score.
Wheeler retook the lead after Austin Smoak made two free throws for a 30-27 margin with 4:42 left in the third.
But Castlin went on the offensive with Hillgrove trailing 37-32, scoring five straight points to knot the score with 1:23 remaining in the period.
Hillgrove opened the fourth on an 8-0 run, with B.J. Brown scoring seven points in 2½ minutes, but a dunk from Daniel Giddens, back-to-back steals from Tim Sanders and a charging call against the Hawks pulled Wheeler to within 49-48 with 3:23 left to play.
Ray’s jumper at the 2:12 mark put Hillgrove ahead 53-50, and Castlin sank two free throws 21 seconds later for a 55-50 advantage.
Avery Patterson’s 3-pointer left Wheeler trailing 55-53 with a minute remaining. The defense picked up at both ends of the court late in the contest as both teams had trouble scoring until the final 10 seconds.
“We’re here because we put this team in God’s hands,” Hillgrove coach Ed Morris said after the game, overwhelmed by emotion. “I’m so happy for our school and our community. You can’t say enough about this group of kids.
“Nobody gave us a chance. With all the social networking, our kids came in motivated. Wheeler’s been here before, and with their tradition, we knew it was going to be tough. But I can’t say enough about how our kids played.”
Hillgrove made eight 3-pointers and shot 10-of-18 from the free-throw line, while Wheeler connected on three 3s and was 11-of-22 from the line.
“We were fortunate to make just one free throw there at the end to make it a two-point game,” Morris said. “Fortunately, (Love) didn’t make (his shot) and we got the win. It’s an awesome feeling. This is what you dream of as a coach — a chance to play in a state championship — and God made that dream come true.”
Smoak finished with 11 points and three assists for Wheeler, while Elijah Staley had 13 points, four boards and two steals. Giddens and Jaylen Brown each added eight points, with Patterson totaling seven.
“Give all the credit to Hillgrove,” Wheeler coach Doug Lipscomb said. “They played a good game. They kept it low-scoring and played good defense. I take the blame for this loss. The plan was to drive to the basket for that last shot, but it didn’t work out that way.”