The Wildcats were in contention against Tift County in Saturday’s Class AAAAAA state championship into the fourth quarter, but they never seemed to find that spark.
Instead, the Blue Devils pulled away late and secured a 63-49 victory at the Macon Centreplex, becoming the first south Georgia team to win a title in the state’s biggest classification since 1998.
Tift County coach Eric Holland had three ideas on how to stop Wheeler after watching film on the Wildcats, and the Blue Devils executed all three brilliantly.
“The three keys (Saturday) was stopping them in transition, rebounding the basketball and winning in transition, and we stopped them in all three of those,” Holland said. “We wanted them to play a half-court game.”
Tift County started taking control of the game early in the fourth quarter, when Jaylen Brown was whistled on a charge for his fourth foul. Wheeler was only trailing 36-33 at the time.
That ignited an 8-2 run by the Blue Devils, capped by a reverse layup by Tadric Jackson at the 4-minute mark. The lead grew to double digits when P.J. Horne’s dunk led to a three-point play.
Wheeler made one last attempt to stay in the game on a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Avery Patterson, to cut the Tift County lead to 47-40. But the Blue Devils made seven of their next eight free throws to pull away.
“They were finishing their shots and we weren’t executing like we know we should,” said Wheeler’s Elijah Staley, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds in his final game as a Wildcat. “We didn’t get the outcome that we thought we would.”
The only time Wheeler (28-5) was in control of the game was early in the first quarter, when Brown, who led with 17 points, started things off with a three-point play.
Tift County then took the lead it never relinquished it, scoring 11 unanswered points to end the opening quarter with an 11-3 lead.
Even though Wheeler kept scrapping its way into the game in the first and second halves, the Wildcats never had the lead again.
The only time Wheeler tied the game was late in the second quarter on a Brown dunk.
Even though the Wildcats finished the first half with 13 turnovers, went 1-for-5 from beyond the arc and had just two offensive rebounds, they were only trailing 19-17 at the half.
But in the second half, when Wheeler got within one possession, Tift County kept maintaining its distance.
Then the fouls started adding up for Wheeler, with Brown, Patterson, Daniel Giddens and Makhai Eastmond all fouling out, making it difficult for the Wildcats to make a stretch run.
D.J. Bryant led Tift County with 22 points, and Jackson added 15.