Wheeler looking to send dynamic trio out on a high note
Mar. 10—It is hard to beat a team three times in a season, let alone four, but that is what Wheeler will be trying to do when it faces Region 5AAAAAAA foe Cherokee in the Class AAAAAAA state championship game Saturday at the Macon Coliseum.
Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. in what will be the state's final high school basketball game of the 2022-23 season.
Wheeler (25-6) was expected to get this far.
Led by Naismith Boys High School Player of the Year Isaiah Collier, 6-foot-9 power forward and rim protector Arrinten Page and athletic wing Jelani Hamilton, Wheeler's six losses came against a national schedule in tournaments away from home. The Wildcats have yet to lose to a team from Georgia this season.
Wheeler is also riding an 11-game winning streak against Cherokee. The Warriors have not beaten the Wildcats since 2013, and they have lost 20 of the last 21 meetings.
Cherokee (25-6) comes in as what appears to be the Cinderella story.
The Warriors are the first boys team from Cherokee County to advance to a state title game since the they did so in 1982 — a team led by future Kennesaw State coach Tony Ingle — and they will be trying to win the county's first GHSA boys title since Canton High School won in 1951.
A closer look at Cherokee's season shows the Warriors could be coming into the game 28-3. They lost by one at Class AAAAAA semifinalist Etowah. They also lost 65-63 at Buford and fell 47-41 at region foe Walton, which advanced to the state quarterfinals.
In the playoffs, Cherokee beat West Forsyth and Berkmar at home, then knocked off Carrollton on the road. The Warriors then beat Norcross in overtime in the final four.
Cherokee has been led by seniors Braylin Giddens and Cameron Pope, as well as sophomore Lawrence Sanford. The trio combined to score 48 points in the semifinal win over Norcross.
Despite all the success, there is one game most people might focus on, and it is the one game Wheeler coach Larry Thompson wants everyone to forget.
Wheeler beat Cherokee handily in the region championship game last month, 94-41.
"That region championship game, we didn't see the real Cherokee," Thompson said. "They had played a lot of basketball to that point, and we had a lot of rest."
Thompson said he has had his players watching film of their first two meetings with Cherokee. In the first game, Wheeler found itself down 10 points on the road before coming back to win 69-60. In the second matchup, the Wildcats won 73-60 at home, seven days before the region final blowout.
"They've got an understanding of how bad we played in some areas in those games," Thompson said. "They are going to get the best Cherokee team they have seen so far."
While Wheeler will be trying to win its third title in four years, it will also be somewhat bittersweet. It will be the last game for Collier, Page and Hamilton, along with fellow seniors Calvino Stallworth, Damion Mitchell and Cameron Brown.
The Wildcats' senior class has a record of 101-23 over four years, and Thompson said he has been reminding the squad all year that it is important to have these players leave the program the right way.
"Every time I get a senior group, I tell everyone it's important to send these guys with the state championship," Thompson said. "We go into it knowing that we only get to coach these guys for a limited time, and we are so proud of what they have meant to this high school."