The Wildcats opened the fourth quarter with an uncomfortable 52-48 lead but scored eight points in the first minute. It began with an Isaiah Collier dunk, followed by three consecutive steals, all leading to two points on the other end. That was part of a 13-0 run to start the quarter, opening the Wildcats’ lead to 65-48 with six minutes left.
Collier, a senior guard who led all scorers with 26 points, said that while they faced a formidable opponent, it was ultimately up to his team to take charge.
“We were real lackadaisical and we had to pick up our energy to start the fourth quarter,” Collier said. “We did that, we got our momentum and we kept going. Milton is a really good team. They’re not a 4-seed, I would say. We started really well, we just have to play better. It was us, on our end, really.”
Wheeler appeared to take control toward the end of the first quarter, pulling away for a 20-12 lead, with Wildcats junior guard Ricky McKenzie scoring 11 of his 21 points.
The Wildcats pushed the lead to 29-19 with four minutes left in the half, but the Eagles closed on a 13-4 run, even taking the lead at 32-31 on a 3-pointer from senior Devan Rush with 39 seconds left. Wheeler immediately responded with an alley-oop dunk from senior forward Arrinten Page to take a 33-32 lead into half.
The Eagles led by as much as 39-35 early in the second half after consecutive fast break dunks from Seth Fitzgerald, but Wheeler began to full-court press and regained the lead at 41-39 with 4:31 left in the third on a McKenzie 3-pointer and never relinquished it.
Wildcats coach Larry Thompson said it took some time for his team to come together.
“We weren’t ourselves today,” he said. “We were a little lethargic. I guess being out of school today with winter break, not being here until 4, 5 o’clock, kind of threw us out of our normal routine. We try to do the same thing before every game, and weren’t able to do that today. But we found a way in that third quarter, pressed a little bit and found a way to get a win.”
Page scored all 12 of his points off dunks, and in total the Wildcats had 12 of them, including five from Collier.
The Wildcats are gunning for their third championship in four years under Thompson after winning 7A in 2020, and 6A in 2021. It would be their ninth title overall, with longtime Wildcats coach Doug Lipscomb winning the other six between 1994 and 2015.
The Eagles (19-10), from Region 6, who won 7A in 2021 and reached the quarterfinals last year, were led by sophomore Josh Dixon’s 20 points.
Milton 12 20 16 16 — 64
Wheeler 20 13 19 29 — 81