In a professional sports world filled with scandals, doping, and sign-stealing, it is easy to get cynical about sporting events. And when tournaments rarely produce the excitement they promise, it is also easy to get cynical about brackets. But something amazing happened this year in Georgia 7A basketball: an exciting tournament filled with superb athletes produced an underdog champion.
The Wheeler Wildcats were good all season, but it wasn’t until the postseason that they really started clicking. Head Coach Larry Thompson got a bit emotional talking about his team after their dominant Final Four win over then-#2 Milton. “This group of guys is resilient,” he said, “and I’m getting a bit teary-eyed talking about it. They play hard, and they don’t care who gets the credit. They just want to win.”
And win they did. They stormed through the playoffs, sending Etowah, Shiloh, Berkmar, and Milton home as they made their way to the final game. Their opponent in the finals, the Grayson Rams, were the favorites to win the title game. They had beaten Discovery, Pebblebrook, Norcross, and reigning state-champ McEachern to reach the finals. And ranked #1 in the state and #4 in the country, the Rams looked like the sure bet to win.
But those who watched the Wildcats through the playoffs knew one thing the stats-keepers didn’t know: Wheeler was playing their best ball late in the postseason. “This run that we’ve been on throughout the playoffs,” said Coach Thompson, “has been some really good basketball. The guys get it. They trust one another and they have completely bought in.”
After one quarter of the final game of the 2019-2020 season at the Macon Coliseum, the fans for both teams knew just how good the Wildcats really were. Up eight points late in the first (14-6), Wheeler wasn’t allowing Grayson to set the tempo. The Wildcats led by three points at the end of the first quarter, and six points after two quarters, 31-25. It would be up to the Rams to make some mid-game adjustments.
“That first half was the best we played all season,” said Coach Thompson. “We guarded, we set, we defended.”
Not able to open up lanes on the Wildcat defense, the Rams took to shooting more often in the third quarter. A trio of three-point buckets and several mid-range shots got Grayson back in the game, and contributed to a 21-point quarter for the Ram offense. The third period ended with Grayson up by two, 44-46.
The Rams continued their momentum swing into the fourth quarter, taking an eight-point lead halfway through the quarter, 46-54. A full time-out by Coach Thompson quieted the Grayson fans and got the attention of the Wildcats focused back on the floor. Free-throw opportunities were made by the Wildcats, but missed by the Rams. The eight-point deficit was made up quickly and the game was soon tied, 55-55.
In the final minute, Wheeler scored their last 5 points from the foul line with expert shooting from Sam Hines Jr. and Nash Kelly. With 1.1 seconds left on the clock, the Wildcats led by a single point, 60-59. A inbound to half court and a desperation shot by the Rams that sailed wide of the basket was all that was left for Wheeler to win its first state championship since 2015.
“This feels amazing,” said Coach Thompson. “The competition at the 7A level is intense. Every night you have to prepare. You have to be ready to play a full 32 minutes. That was a battle out there.”
“I am so very proud of the players and coaches,” said Wheeler Athletic Director Michael Sawyer. “They worked their butts off all year. The dedication and hard work they put in paid off with a huge win! The 2019 Wildcats are the definition of a TEAM and proved that buying into the culture that Coach Thompson has created can achieve the ultimate goal of a state championship.”
Congratulations to Wheeler High School and the Wildcats for a job well-done this season. Great play and great finish! You are state champions!