On Friday night, the Wheeler Wildcats won their second state championship in as many years with a 71-61 win over the Kell Longhorns at the Macon Coliseum.
Over the course of the season, a heated rivalry developed between the teams. With Kell moving up from 5A and Wheeler moving down from 7A, this season was the first time that the schools played in the same region—6-6A. Previous to last night’s state championship game, they had played three times this season. Wheeler won both of the regular season matchups, and Kell won the region championship game.
When the 6A state tournament bracket was revealed with the teams on opposite sides, it seemed inevitable that these powerhouse programs would be meeting for a fourth time.
Wheeler mowed through their path to the championship game. The Wildcats won each of their games by 10 or more points. After losing the region championship game to Kell, it was clear that the Wildcats were on a mission to see them again in the championship game.
Kell had a more strenuous journey in getting to the championship game. The Longhorns had tough battles throughout their playoff run, but facing adversity can be a good thing during the postseason. It shows that a team can handle tough, gritty games, and that’s what this Kell team did in order to get to Macon.
Ultimately the Wildcats’ depth proved to be the deciding factor in the Final. Wheeler had four players finish in double figures. Isaiah Collier led the way with 16 points including three made 3-pointers. Ja’Heim Hudson, Kaleb Washington, and Max Harris each scored 12 points. Hudson also added 12 rebounds to round out a double-double.
A 7-0 run in the second quarter allowed Wheeler to gain some separation. The Wildcats built a comfortable lead during that stretch and never looked back from there.
For most of the second half, the Wildcats’ lead stayed around eight to 12 points, but a late surge by Kell cut their lead to five with under 2 minutes left in the game.
Then, Max Harris knocked down a 3-pointer and hit a trio of free throws to regain a comfortable lead for the Wildcats. Khedric Oliver emphasized the win with a dunk at the buzzer.
Kell’s Scoot Henderson put up 29 points with 11-23 shooting from the field. Jaylen Harris added 11 points.
Wheeler brought a stout defensive effort as they held Kell to 39% effectiveness from the field.
“We were really good defensively,” said Wheeler head coach Larry Thompson. “I’m a defensive-minded basketball coach. I told them if we came to defend, we would win. They took the challenge and ran with it.”
“We know Scoot Henderson is a big-time scorer,” he continued. “We knew he was going to put up big numbers in this game. But we wanted to make sure that Jaylen Harris also didn’t go off tonight. He’s really been hurting us over the last few games.”
“Our fan base, our parents, the kids… that’s who we do it for,” said Coach Thompson as he reflected on his second consecutive championship. “This team came to work every single day, and I couldn’t be happier for them.”
“I’m so proud of our coach and our kids and our fans,” Wheeler Athletic Director Michael Sawyer said after the game. “Back-to-back feels great for me as an administrator, but more importantly, it’s fantastic for our school and our community. I’m so happy for them.”
Although the outcome of the game obviously wasn’t what he wanted for his team, Longhorn head coach Jermaine Sellers’ optimism and pride in what’s happening at Kell couldn’t be dimmed. “Overall, it was a historic season for our program,” he said. “We’ve qualified for the state tournament six out of the last seven years. In a three-year span we’ve won two region championships, one Elite 8, one Final 4, and one state runner-up. Our players have bought into the culture that has been established here.”
“We will continue to work and build to reach our ultimate goal of winning a state championship,” he continued. “We are very pleased, but not satisfied.”
The Longhorns are set up to be in the position to make another run at winning a state championship next season. Scoot Henderson, PJ Johnson, and Aaron Smith are three high-potential members of their starting roster that will be returning next season. Sharpshooting freshman Jaylen Colon is another piece that could help fill the void left by the talented crop of graduating seniors.
Congratulations to both Kell and Wheeler for exceptional seasons and great play. We look forward to next year. Go Cobb!