Three hours before the Milton game Friday, some Wheeler students already were in the gym, sitting in the front row. One claimed he was there to see the JV game, but he wasn’t believable.
Wheeler, the defending boys basketball champion in Class AAAAA, was playing No. 1-ranked Milton at 7:30 in a rematch of the 2009 state final, and it seemed that all of East Cobb knew it. The gym was out of seats by 7:10, and about 200 fans were turned away.
‘’First off, we hate Milton, period,’’ said Drew Hansen, one of the early birds wearing an old Wheeler basketball jersey at the front of the student section. “Second, it’s kind of like the Duke-UNC rivalry.’’
Except that Duke and North Carolina have beaten each other many times.
Wheeler hasn’t lost to Milton since winning the first of five state titles in 1994 and extended its dominance with a 78-72 victory in its home gym Friday night.
Wheeler coach Doug Lipscomb claimed it was an upset, but Milton coach David Boyd wasn’t buying it.
“I don’t know what their home record is; probably pretty phenomenal,’’ Boyd said. “I wouldn’t think they’ve lost many in the history of the program at Wheeler.’’
But the outcome isn’t likely to matter in the end. There are region and state tournaments to be played, and Milton fans will note that a key starter, Evan Nolte, didn’t play because of an injury.
This was simply to settle whether one game and two teams were up to their hype. They were.
Peter Giles, Wheeler’s athletics director, said he brought in five security officers instead of the usual three to handle the traffic of cars and people. He also added a second ticket taker.
Major Division I-A recruits filled the floor. Jelan Kendrick, the Wheeler forward, has signed with Memphis and is the consensus No. 1 recruit in Georgia. He scored 18 points.
Four-year starting guard Phil Taylor has signed with Florida International, and wing man Joey Jerome is headed to Winthrop. They scored 12 points apiece. Friday’s hero might have been K.K. Simmons, whose pair of 3-pointers in the fourth was critical. He scored 12 off the bench.
For Milton, forward Julian Royal and guards Dai-Jon Parker and Shannon Scott are ranked among the top 50 junior prospects in the country by most recruiting services. Scott has committed to Ohio State.
Wheeler fans know who those players are and sprinkled them with a respect of boos when they filed in at 6 p.m. Their families were close behind.
‘’We knew if we didn’t get here early, we wouldn’t get a seat,’’ said Trudy Scott, Shannon Scott’s mother, who got a spot three rows behind Milton’s bench.
She said her son showed up for Milton’s morning shootaround 15 minutes early Friday morning -- especially for Wheeler. It showed. He scored 22 points.
But it wasn’t enough. Wheeler’s fans chanted “overrated, overrated’’ as the final seconds ticked off, and then the students rushed the floor.
That will make it fun for the rematch. Milton still leads the region, and Wheeler must play another ranked team, Walton, Saturday night on the road.
This was just one game, albeit something close to a classic.
“Every good team has its day,’’ said Wheeler guard Karl Cochran. “After a loss [last week to Campbell], we were broken down. We talked about it and came out harder. We showed how we can compete when we do play like the true Wheeler Wildcats.’’