Pace Academy center Wendell Carter drives to the basket past Morgan County defenders Stevin Green (left) and Alec Woodard in their Class AAA boys state basketball championship game on Thursday, March 9, 2017, in Athens. Curtis Compton/

AJC high school basketball players of the year

Mikayla Coombs of Wesleyan and Wendell Carter of Pace Academy, two McDonald’s All-Americans who led their schools to state championships, are The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s basketball players of the year.

Coombs, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, averaged 16.9 points, seven rebounds, 4.5 assists and four steals for the 28-4 Wolves, but her role in leading Wesleyan’s comeback from a 17-point deficit in the Class A private-school championship game cemented her position as the state’s premier girls player.

Wesleyan trailed Holy Innocents’ 14-8 with 2:29 remaining in the first quarter when Coombs left the game with her second foul. Holy Innocents’ outscored the Wolves 12-7 with Coombs on the bench and eventually led 32-15 before Coombs took over. She scored 10 points in the final 4:11 of the half to get the Wolves back in the game at 34-27, and her two free throws late in the third quarter tied the score for the first time since the opening minute.

She finished with a game-high 17 points and added nine rebounds in Wesleyan’s 51-48 victory.

“When it came to that state championship game, when we got down so much, Mikayla really showed why she is deserving of player of the year because she really led the comeback that allowed us to win the game,” Wesleyan coach Jan Azar said.

The state title was Wesleyan’s second during Coombs’ career and the 12th for the school in 16 seasons. The Wolves were the Class AA champs in 2015, although Coombs tore her ACL in the first quarter of the first game and missed the remainder of the season.

That championship pedigree will work to her advantage when Coombs continues her basketball career next season at Connecticut, which has won 111 consecutive games and is poised to claim its 11th NCAA title in 18 years.

“I think the best thing about Mikayla is that she’s a great teammate,” Azar said. “She wants everyone around her to be successful, and if everyone around her is successful then she’s happy.”

Carter, a 6-foot-10 forward, averaged 22.7 points, 15.5 rebounds and 5.8 blocks per game for Pace Academy, which he led to state titles in boys basketball for the first times in 2016 and 2017.

It was harder for Pace Academy and Carter this time. A year ago, the Knights defeated all five playoff opponents by 10 points or more. This year, there were a series of close playoff games as Pace Academy moved up in classification to AAA.

In the quarterfinals at home, the Knights went to overtime to defeat No. 1-ranked Westside-Macon 53-50, as Carter nearly met his match against Westside’s Khavon Moore, the No. 1 recruit among juniors.

Pace Academy then defeated Liberty County — which had two first-team all-state players — 71-62 in Savannah. Carter made 16 of 20 free throws, had two 3-pointers and scored 32 points.

In the finals, Pace Academy defeated defending AAA champion Morgan County 54-46, as Carter scored 20 points and had 17 rebounds.

“What makes him different from everybody else is when the stage is set he will rise to the capacity of the stage,’’ Pace Academy coach Demetrius Smith said. “The bigger it gets, the better he plays.’’

Smith said that Duke is getting a nearly complete player, physically and academically. The consensus No. 5 recruit in the country, Carter developed more quickly as a defensive player and rebounder. His passing skills are outstanding. Now, he’s an elite scorer, too.

“At 6-10, he can score at all three levels going left or right,’’ Smith said. “He can come off picks and staggered screens to catch and shoot 3s. His one-two game has also evolved with his mid-range jump shot. There is not much he cannot do.’’

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