Since Tyrone Johnson succeeded former NBA All-Star Mark Price as coach before the 2001-02 season, the Wolfpack have reached the semifinals or better 10 times in 14 years. They’ve played for a state championship eight times, and that includes this season as they prepare for Saturday afternoon’s matchup against Region 6A rival St. Francis at the Macon Centreplex.
Whitefield (24-6) will be gunning for its fourth state title when it goes up against St. Francis (24-7). The Wolfpack won it all in 2003, 2009 and 2012, and they came up just short in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010.
Making season-ending trips to Macon has seemingly become routine for the Whitefield coaching staff and the team’s supporters.
But this will be a new experience for the majority of the Wolfpack’s roster. Of the 12 players currently dressing out for varsity, only two players — seniors Eric Lockett and Berto Dryden — were on the 2012 championship team.
“I’m just going to talk to them and let them know how different it is when the big lights are on,” said Lockett, a George Mason signee. “I got to let them know what to expect.”
Lockett and Dryden aren’t the only ones giving Whitefield’s younger players advice on the pressure they may face of playing for a state championship. Former Whitefield standouts Cameron Baskerville and Aaron McLeod, both of whom played for the 2009 championship team, came to practice Tuesday to offer their input.
“They were teaching them what it means to seize the moment,” Johnson said.
Whitefield will be going up against a St. Francis team it beat twice in region play. In the teams’ first meeting Dec. 10, the Wolfpack used a strong fourth quarter to beat the Knights 71-63 at home. In the second meeting, the game started with Whitefield scoring nine unanswered points before winning 71-63.
But what Johnson wants to avoid Saturday is his players acting overconfident. He wants the players to approach the game as if they’ve never played St. Francis before.
“It’s very difficult to beat a team two times, and it’s even more difficult to beat a team three times,” Johnson said. “This is kind of off, but the last thing I want is for the guys to be comfortable. What we’ve done in the past has no bearing on Saturday’s game.”
Johnson said St. Francis is one of the taller teams Whitefield has faced all season, with two players standing 6-foot-10, and another that’s 6-8. He also stated that the Knights can score quickly and in bunches, and if the Wolfpack fall behind early, having to play catch-up could alter their intended game plan and how they would like to run their offense.
The key to Saturday’s game is setting the tempo early. Whitefield has had success shooting the 3-pointer when it gets open looks, and it’s an effective rebounding team on both sides of the court.
The Wolfpack had success at both disciplines in an 82-61 win over Calvary Day in Monday’s semifinal. They were 5-of-8 from the 3-point line in the first half, took a 16-point lead at the break and converted several second-chance buckets in the second half.
Courtney Alexander has averaged a double-double for the season, with 13 points and 15 rebounds against Calvary Day. And Lockett, Dryden, Brendan Myles, Isaiah Hart and Norman Harris are all capable of scoring double digits.
“Offense wins fans, defense wins games and rebounds win championships,” Johnson said. “We want to walk into each game with a chance to win, and the best way to do that is to dominate the glass from both ends.”