By Charlie Moon, Lowcountryradio.com.Honestly, this game should have been a Final Four or even a State Title match-up. Why? Both teams sat atop the state AAAAAA polls for much of the regular season, until the Cats hit 2-3 regular season- ending skid. But, the Cats got their mojo back by dominating and winning the Region 2 Tourney. Meanwhile, Wheeler was upset by current #2 Kell, in the 78-71 double- OT Region 6 title game. Wheeler remained atop the state rankings, but fell to the #2-seed out of Region 6. That’s why I’ll never agree with how GHSA seeds its playoffs. Honestly, conference seeds should determine 1st round playoff seeding. Once the 1st round is done, everyone should be re-seeded….another column for another day!
Wednesday, March 3 Elite 8 GHSA Class AAAAAA Playoffs #1 Wheeler 61 - #5 Richmond Hill 47
It was a night that will go down in history. There has never been and may not ever be a match-up of 2 higher-ranked basketball teams to take the floor in Richmond Hill. It was also the first time in 24 years, that a Richmond Hill squad appeared in the Elite 8. Wheeler, Class AAAAAA’s #1-ranked team all season long, has been in the USA Today Top 25 National Poll for most of the season. They brought 7 state titles, including the 2020 Class AAAAAAA title upset of Grayson. They returned three starters, plus added Pebblebrook transfer Caleb Washington, a 4-star Dayton Flyer commitment. They also boast the state’s #2023 prospect in Sophomore PG Isaiah Collier, as well as three additional 2- and 3-star prospects.
You could feel it in the air early on. There was something special on display. Credit to Coach Bill Henderson and the staff for drawing up an incredible game plan on both sides. They held mighty Wheeler to just 61 points, its 4th lowest total of the season, and lowest since mid-December. At the end of Quarter 1, Wheeler had a slim 11-8 lead. The game plan produced 6 undefended or lightly defended point blank shots in that quarter. Unfortunately, the Cats missed 5 of those. That was most assuredly nerves, but they settled in nicely.
A late 2nd quarter 7-0 spurt put Wheeler ahead by 14 at the half. The last 6:00 of the 2nd quarter and the first 2:00 of the 3rd quarter, was the killer. The Cats’ 2nd leading scorer, Brayden Baker sat for most of the 2nd quarter and Wheeler took advantage. On the flip side, Leighton Finley, Liam Markgraf and Jaeden Marshall had done great work within the Richmond Hill game plan of getting Wheeler’s best player, Florida Gulf Coast signee Ja’heim Hudson, into foul trouble. Hudson is a 4-star recruit and the MaxPreps #19 Power Forward in the country.
That’s where the difference showed. We knew Wheeler was deep and it showed. Not only do they have Hudson, but they can boast Washington and others like 5-star (ESPN #1 GA ranked Sophomore) guard Isaiah Collier and 3-star forward Max Harris. That depth is what keyed Wheeler.
Wheeler had run out to a 45-26 lead early in the 2nd half. Most teams would have wilted and just given in. A team like Wheeler should have ended up with a 30-point win. But Richmond Hill showed why they spent much of the season as Georgia’s #2-ranked team.
They went on a flurry of hot shooting, ferocious defense and work on the boards. One might think that this came only because Wheeler unloaded their bench.
One would be wrong!
Wheeler coach Larry Thompson told me prior to the game, he felt like this was the 2nd or 3rd best team they will have played all season. That says a lot, considering two teams are in the Class AAAAAA and AAAAAAA title games. He didn’t empty their bench. The main rotation stayed on the floor, because Thompson knew just how good Richmond Hill was. It showed.
With the season and state title hopes on the line, Richmond Hill showed their mettle and reminded the state that we did belong on the same floor. During a 6-minute span leading up to the 5:00 4th quarter mark, Richmond Hill out-rebounded Wheeler 10-2 and forced four Wheeler turnovers, enroute to a 16-4 run and a 49-43 deficit with 4:00 left. In that run, Jaeden Marshall nailed a 3-ball, Leighton Finley and Baker both had dunks and Nijauan Youmans kissed an up-and- under flying layup between three defenders off the glass that I called out, “one for the ages.” Baker also rolled in what to be the world’s greatest finger roll, begun with a break away off a Markgraf defensive board and quick outlet to Marshall at half court, then to Baker. Baker’s finger roll, scoop lay-up spun from the bottom of the backboard and tapped the top of the backboard…..before falling.
Once Markgraf got the lightning-quick outlet to Marshall, LCR color analyst Brock Vaigneur and I saw it coming. My call went something like: “Oh no, Baker don’t you… don’t you….oh noooooo! He did! He did! He did! He did!”…and then of course, I told Wildcat Nation what happened.
Baker was fouled, but missed the ensuing free throw. Unfortunately, that’s where the run ended. Wheeler held on to earn the Final Four berth.
Wheeler went on to beat Centennial 73-63 in the Final Four.
Wheeler plays conference rival Kell in the Class AAAAAA title game Friday at 7:30. The GHSA/ Dr. Ralph Swearingen Basketball State Championships (March 10-13) include all classifications (men/women) and have been played at the Macon Centreplex for over a decade. It is simulcast on Georgia Public Broadcasting and NFHS Network.
Chris Mooneyham, from Atlanta’s 680 TheFan (the South’s largest ESPN Radio affiliate) will be on the call. Mooneyham also has the 2A, 4A and 7A Men’s Finals. Check GHSA.net for more details.
The Cats finish the season 21-4 as Region 2-AAAAAA Champs and Elite 8 participants. In next week’s LCR Wrap-up, look for a full season wrap-up and 2022 outlook for both men and women’s teams.