Gill had tied the game at 64-all by making both shots of a 1-and-1 with 22 seconds left, and with arguably the Warriors’ best player — Ja’Davin Keith — having fouled out, Gill had the hot hand.
Cherokee inbounded the ball under their basket and pushed the ball up the court. There were just 3 seconds left on the clock when Gill got the ball inside the key. He drove and floated a shot, and the ball slipped through the net as the buzzer sounded on the 66-64 final score.
Gill, a sophomore who finished the game with 21 points, said it was the biggest moment of his playing career.
“I just felt like I had to step up because coach (Roger Kvam) called my number,” Gill said. “I just decided to shoot.”
Kvam’s confidence in his player paid off for the coach, too. It was the 400th victory of a 32-year-long coaching career that included seven seasons and 113 wins at Sprayberry.
Kvam, who came to Cherokee in 2003, said it’s special any time his team can beat a Doug Lipscomb-coached team, and this victory was no different.
“He has got a lot of wins and a lot of them are against me,” Kvam said of the longtime Wheeler coach, who achieved his 500th career win in December. “I’ve only beaten him three times, and they have all been sweet.”
The Region 5AAAAAA win was also meaningful to the region race. Wheeler (15-7, 10-3) leads Cherokee (16-8, 9-4) with one game remaining Friday — Wheeler hosting Walton and Cherokee traveling to Milton.
Wheeler, which led by as many as 10 points during the game, held a 54-47 advantage after Austin Smoak made a pair of free throws with 6:32 left in the game. Cherokee responded with a 3-pointer by Keith, which cut it to 54-50.
Things got interesting as the teams raced up the court. Keith attempted to make a play for the ball and was called for a foul — his fourth of the game. Keith skipped away from the center of action, but he had evidently expressed his displeasure of the call and was issued a technical foul, which also resulted in his fifth personal foul.
Smoak was sent to the line to shoot the technical shots and made them both. With possession of the ball, the Wildcats quickly scored on a three-point play by Elijah Staley and were suddenly up 59-50 with 6 minutes left.
Cherokee got a spark when a technical was issued against Staley on the Wildcats’ next possession. Zach Kvam, who sat out a large portion of the first half in foul trouble, made both the technical shots.
The teams traded baskets until the Warriors’ Kaleb Rogers laid the ball in for two points. Kvam followed with a 3-pointer on the team’s next trip down the court and, suddenly, Cherokee was back in the game 64-62 with 36 seconds left.
The Warriors forced a turnover before Keith was sent to the line for his 1-and-1, which triggered the game’s final exchange.
Prior to the final score, Cherokee had held the lead just once when it was 6-5 in the first quarter. Wheeler led 18-17 after the first quarter, 36-34 at the half and 50-42 after three quarters.
Lipscomb found plenty of things for his team to improve upon before the Region 5AAAAAA tournament next week.
“We showed our youth,” he said. “That’s not good. I have to give (Cherokee) a lot of credit. They never quit. We’ve just got to improve. We’ve got so many flaws. … We’ve got to continue to finish the game, but I can’t take anything away from (Cherokee).”
Staley led Wheeler with 15 points. Smoak finished with 13, including a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter and a 5-for-6 performance at the free-throw line. Jaylen Brown scored 10.
Keith finished the game with 15 points, including three 3-pointers. Kvam finished with 12, while Armony Parker made a pair of three-pointers.
The Warriors, who were greatly undersized, used 3-pointers and fast ball movement to compete offensively. On defense, they doubled up on Wheeler’s 6-for-10 center, Daniel Giddens, whenever he touched the ball.
“I’m proud of this group of kids because they fight when they are down,” Roger Kvam said. “We have only led wire-to-wire maybe three times this season, so that’s a real tribute to them. They don’t quit. They believe they can win.
“We knew we needed to play a certain way to win and we did that.”
Cherokee 69, Wheeler 44: After the Lady Wildcats’ Muneerah Drummond left the game with an injury in the first quarter, the Lady Warriors quickly pulled away for an easy Region 5AAAAAA victory at home.
Five players scored in the first quarter as Cherokee (23-1, 13-0) took a 15-7 lead after Drummond’s exit.
They pushed the lead to 28-15 at the half, and 55-29 after three quarters.
Kiana Howell led three Lady Warriors in double figures with 14 points. Sara Byers had 12 and Christie Mixon scored 10.
Wheeler (7-11, 7-6) was led by Cassidy Allen, who netted 17 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Alaysia Mitchell finished with 16 points after being held scoreless in the first quarter.