Class AAAAAA championship recap

Photo by Craig Sager II

Tift County slammed the door on any Wheeler comeback attempt and cruised in the fourth quarter for a 63-49 victory in the Class AAAAAA state championship. The Blue Devils last state title came in 1996 and the win over Wheeler ended a streak of 17 consecutive playoff exits for a team that has earned 20 consecutive playoff berths.

“When you play with each other and play disciplined this is what happens,” said Tift County head coach Eric Holland. “So many times we got to this point and dropped the ball because we didn’t play together.”

Tift County showed its intensity from the opening tipoff and took an 11-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Blue Devils’ defense continued forcing Wheeler into its half court set and shut down the Wildcats’ dangerous transition attack. Wheeler scored just four fast break points.

“We knew we could guard these guys [Wheeler], said Holland. “I had a guy Chris Wade, probably the best defensive coach in the country come in and fix the defense for me. We didn’t play any defense last year and we knew if we came in and stopped their transition points we were going to win. The game we scouted Wheeler this year they had 39 points at the half and 36 of them were in transition. We knew if we took away their transition game and made them play a half court game we were a better team.”

Holland’s recipe for success worked and seniors Tadric Jackson and D.J. Bryant found ways to attack the Wheeler defense in their balanced half court offense. Bryant finished with a game-high 22 points and went to the foul line 14 times and hit 11-of-14. Jackson navigated his way through Wheeler’s defense and full court press and finished with 15 points and just three turnovers with heavy defensive attention coming his way.

Wheeler got in early foul trouble after picking up several reach-ins and it turned out to be costly. Tift County added to Wheeler’s foul issues by hustling back on defense and drawing charges during Wheeler’s fast break opportunities. Blue Devils senior Steven Waters drew three charges in the game. Tift County freshman P.J. Horne was also able to draw costly fouls. Tift County came out of a timeout with just over three minutes remaining and Horne took the inbounds pass and dunked past Jaylen Brown, who picked up his fifth foul on the play. Brown went to the bench for good with a team-high 17 points. A minute and a half later, Horne ran back on defense and drew a charge and fifth foul on senior point guard Avery Patterson. Horne finished with nine points, eight rebounds and went 5-5 from the foul line in his outstanding championship debut.

Wheeler’s highly recruited 6-foot-10 center Daniel Giddens (also fouled out) was held scoreless and finished with just two rebounds in 25 minutes of action. Horne was a big part of the defensive success against Giddens.

“I told P.J.before the game that the guy you are guarding [Giddens] is 6-foot-10, but he’s only 6-foot-10. You are 6-foot-5,” explained Holland. “Play with will and play with ‘want to’ and that will alleviate him being a little bit taller than you. And P.J. played really well for us inside tonight.”

Ladarius Stewart finished with eight points, four rebounds and three assists for the Blue Devils. Wheeler’s Elijah Staley had a solid game with 10 boards and 16 points.


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