SPORTS RECAP: 'Warrior mentality' earns Wilkinson County 10th state hoops crown
The Courier Herald and The Wilkinson County Post – March 15, 2018
MACON – The working-class demeanor of a Wilkinson County basketball team few in stars but abundant in contributors served as a slight contrast this season to the school's superstar-laden groups of years past. But by the time the final horn had sounded in Wednesday's GHSA class A-public state championship game, this one had reached the same pinnacle as nine that came before it.
The Warriors, with minimal flash and solid team-wide production, held off a talented Montgomery County squad 71-68 at the Macon Coliseum to claim a milestone 10th state championship in school history, as well as the program's third in a row.
Six Wilco players chipped in five or more points in a game won, as in both the past two years, with timely shooting and superb work on the glass. Junior shooting guard Jaylen Lamar, who finished with 22 points, was Wilco's only player to score more than 12 on the night.
"We don't have any big time ballplayers in this group," said Wilkinson County head coach Aaron Geter Jr., who has led the Warriors to each of their 10 state titles since 1999. "We've just got 12 kids with fire that play hard. And they've been very successful."
The win preserves an unbeaten streak now at 15 games that dates back to early January for the Warriors (26-6, 9-1 region), who are now a perfect 10-0 in state finals appearances and claim five of the six state titles in the GHSA's A-public division since it initially expanded from five classifications and split its lowest into groups for public and private schools.
Montgomery County, behind the 27 points of Jahleel Wilson and 19 of Daveanun Coglin, held serve with the Warriors the duration of the night, but needed one or two more of its shots to fall, unable to tie or re-take the lead after cutting a deficit of 8 at the 3-minute mark down to a single point with half a minute to go.
After Daquan Jackson sank a straightaway three with one minute to go that made the score 67-64, the Eagles managed to force a Wilco turnover on consecutive trips back down the floor. The first they failed to convert, missing a layup that was boarded by the Warriors. The second time around, Shaw Robinson picked the pocket of the Wilco ball handler and streaked to the cup, scoring with the right hand to make it 67-66.
But Montgomery County had no more luck with its mid-court press, forced to foul on the next two possessions and put Wilco at the line on either side of a quick Coglin lay-in to keep the gap at one. The Warriors, shooting a one-and-one on the first trip and entering the double bonus on the second, sank all four of their shots, and led again by three with 10 seconds to go.
Montgomery County looked to get Robinson open for a three at the top as time wound down, but the best look he could find was a moving jumper that airballed to the right and out of bounds with two seconds to go.
"It was just back and forth," said Montgomery County head coach Christopher Owens. "They just had the lead when the time ran out."
The shooting of the Eagles' Jahleel Wilson, silky-smooth on his touch from mid-range in all four quarters, proved to be impossible for Wilco to defend. The goggled, 6-foot-4 swingman created matchup problems everywhere else on the floor for the Warriors as well, swatting six shots, creating three steals and bringing in six total rebounds in his 29 minutes.
Several of his early baskets, steals and rebounds ignited a hot start for Montgomery County. The Eagles played from the lead for much of the first quarter until Wilco caught back up with measured pace and evened the count late in the period, simultaneous with the arrival of forward Tylan Grable – off a double-double in last year's state championship game.
An unmatched presence inside, the senior started up a big run for the Warriors with boards on both ends of the floor, the first a defensive re that set up a Wilco possession and led to an offensive board on which he boxed out his man to the right of the basket, and seamlessly shifted the ball to his left hand to stick it back on the other side, drawing a foul in the process that earned him a three-point play at the line.
The sequence stretched Wilco's lead to 21-15 inside 30 seconds to go in the first quarter, though Jahleel Wilson would proceed to quite the Wilco crowd on the next trip down the floor, sinking a left-wing three at the buzzer to make the score 21-18.
Grable would go on to record another double-double, scoring 14 and bringing down 11 rebounds despite battling a myriad injuries – both a nagging foot problem with multiple re-aggravations that's lingered from the state title match last year through football season and the first half of the hoops campaign and a bursitis issue that's caused more recent problems.
"Grable makes a world of difference for us," Geter said. "He's not pretty. He just (through) ugly, hard work, gets it done… That kid right there is a winner."
A key figure in the Warriors' run since his return from the DL in January, he was back when it counted to lead his team again in the state playoffs.
'We knew what we had to do in order to win, and coach always said, 'Just give it to the big guy,'" said Wilkinson County senior Devin Jones, who scored 12 in the win. "We've been riding his back all season long. He's the heart of this team. Coaches have told us, in order to win the state championship, we're gonna have to gather on his back, and he's gonna carry us. And he did that tonight."
Though the Eagles failed to keep Grable off the glass, Montgomery County did prove effective taking away his first-chance opportunities in the post, doubling the gritty post man with the strong-armed Kam Wideman and Jaheim Wilson. The sophomores, though overmatched in both height and reach, found success going after the ball and ripping it away.
If not for Montgomery County's 13 steals to offset Wilco's 47-31 edge in the overall rebound count, the Eagles would likely not have come back after falling behind by a handful of possessions at one point in each of the four quarters.
They fell back by as many as nine midway through the third, but each time managed to claw their way back to tie the score, or come close to doing so.
"We usually shoot it a little bit better, but that comes with the territory," Owens said. "You've gotta play defense in big games. I feel like my guys competed. We played our hardest, we just came up three points short."
Wilkinson County overcame 22 turnovers and 10 misses at the free throw line to survive the opportune shooting of the Eagles.
In a three-point win, the simplest summation of the difference is perhaps that Wilco sunk one more shot (four to the Montgomery County's three) from beyond the arc.
"We were not gonna stop those kids," Geter said. "Those kids, offensively, were very talented. You just hope to be in a position make a play when we have to and win the ballgame, and that's what we did."
This year's Wilkinson County team, in contrast to groups of years past scattered with college prospects, embraced more of an everyman persona with its roster made up largely of role-players.
Losses from 2017 included versatile guards Aaron Geter III, Jadaveon Jones and Larry Jones along with imposing bigs Derrick Wilcher and Greg Couson, all graduates, as well as a returner in 6-foot-5 forward Clarence Jackson who transferred to Dublin for his senior season.
Outside of a major producer in Grable, who was unavailable for much of the season's first half, the group of "blue-collar guys coming to work every day" proved to accomplish a feat that'll be equally as legendary as any of Wilco's past state championships.
"They did a yeoman's job tonight, collectively, putting themselves in a position to win," Geter said. "I love this one just simply because of that. We don't have the stars, but we have a lot of guys that play hard."