State championship at stake as Wheeler, Kell face off for fourth time

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John Bednarowski, Marietta Daily Journal, Ga.
·4 min read
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Mar. 11—For the fourth time in the 2020-21 season, the Wheeler boys will face Kell on the basketball court.

This time, however, it is for the ultimate goal.

The Wildcats (26-5) and Longhorns (22-6) will face off for the Class AAAAAA state championship game for a 7:30 p.m. tip Friday at the Macon Coliseum.

The teams have been No. 1 and No. 2 in the classification nearly all season. In their three previous meetings this season, Wheeler won 74-73 in overtime and 68-65 in regulation, while Kell pulled out the Region 6AAAAAA title game 78-71 in double overtime.

At this point, is there anything either team can do, or will Round 4 be Wheeler doing what it does and Kell doing what it knows how to do?

"You can look at what we did in the previous games," Kell coach Jermaine Sellers said. "We look at what we did well and look at things they managed to do and try to fix those."

Wheeler coach Larry Thompson felt much the same way, but he is holding out a little hope.

"You can add a few more wrinkles," he said. "You try to steal a bucket here or there."

Based on the first three rounds, the title game is likely to be another that comes down to one or two plays, and likely decided in the final moments.

"It's time for the alpha-male players to step up," Thompson said. "It's time for them to lead their team so it has a chance to win in the fourth quarter."

That is what happened for Wheeler last year.

Sam Hines took control and did not let go, scoring a game-high 28 points and making the game-winning free throw with 1.1 seconds to play to lead the Wildcats past Grayson 60-59 in the Class AAAAAAA championship game.

Five players who played in that game will get a chance for back-to-back titles, including two of the three potential alpha males — forward Ja'Heim Hudson and guard Isaiah Collier. The third, forward Kaleb Washington, will get his first taste of the historic Macon Coliseum after transferring from Pebblebrook.

"If there is an advantage for playing there before, I guess you can put a checkmark in the box next to us," Thompson said.

Kell has one true alpha in point guard Scoot Henderson. The Naismith All-American honorable mention is averaging nearly 25 points per game this season, but Thompson said everyone knows that Henderson will get his.

What Thompson is concerned about is Henderson getting his points, and then having Jaylen Harris, Najhae Colon or one of the other Longhorns getting hot and going for 20 or 25 points.

"I call Jaylen Harris a little more dangerous because, if he gets 20, it's a big 20," Thompson said. "His baskets always seem to be timely — a big 3, key free throws — when they need it most."

For both coaches, the matchup is the realization of observations they made when teams were competing in the summer at LakePoint Sports complex. Those thoughts were further cemented after the teams' first meeting in January.

At the time, Thompson said he could see the squads meeting three more times this season, and Sellers agreed.

They also tipped their caps to the other teams in Region 6AAAAAA. With as many as seven high-quality teams in the nine-team region, both coaches said having to bring their best game every night was key to honing their success.

"It meant everything for us," Thompson said. "Leaving the region we did with Pebblebrook, Campbell and East Coweta, I didn't think it could get harder, but having to go on the road to Allatoona, South Cobb, Kell, Pope, Kennesaw Mountain, and then have to turn around and play them at home. Then, have to face those dudes again in a region tournament. It was tough to do."

For most of the season, the coaches were right. During the regular season, Wheeler and Kell played a combined 18 region games that were decided by 15 points or fewer. Ten of those games were within two scores, including South Cobb pulling out a 81-74 victory against Wheeler.

"South Cobb, Allatoona and those guys definitely made us ready," Sellers said.

While Kell may have won the last meeting with Wheeler in the region championship, the Longhorns may still be considered the outsiders as they prepare for the title game. It will be their first trip to the title game, while the Wildcats will be looking for the program's eighth championship.

Sellers said the underdog role fits his squad just fine.

"I feel like we are the underdog," he said. "All the time, our guys feel like the underdog. We're undersized and we always play with a chip on our shoulder."