The Wildcats will have plenty of company from Cobb County that will join them, too. North Cobb beat Tift County and Hillgrove downed Brunswick to sent three teams from the county to the semifinals. It is the first time since 1986, when the former Wills High School took on Sprayberry, that as many as two Cobb County schools were in the semifinals of the highest classification.
Wheeler will face Hillgrove in the first Class AAAAAA semifinal at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday
“I feel like we actually have the advantage,” Staley said of Hillgrove’s notoriously tough defense. “I’ve watched them play a few times. They have a few players, but I feel like we’re faster down the court. That’s what we have over them.”
For Wheeler, it is its first Final Four since the 2008-09 season, but still its fourth trip in nine years.
However, Wednesday’s game at Doug Lipscomb Gymnasium was a lot different than last Saturday’s contest against Meadowcreek when the Wildcats put up 96 points.
Wheeler (21-8) saw a strong perimeter attack from the Lions in the first half, but its interior defense from 6-foot-10 Daniel Giddens and the 6-7 Staley made the difference down the stretch.
“They made runs, but we persevered and continued to play well together. That’s a good team and we knew they were going to make runs. They’ve been known to do that,” Wheeler coach Doug Lipscomb said.
Giddens, who has undoubtedly been a difference maker since returning to the lineup mid-season, was quiet with seven points on three field goals and a free throw. Giddens did not score his first field goal of the contest until the 3:08 mark in the third quarter.
The Lions couldn’t get touches for their big guys, early on, but strong shooting kept them in the game. Peachtree Ridge trailed just 19-17 after the first period and 30-24 at halftime.
“Coach said we had a decent half, but we didn’t have the best we could,” Staley said. “We just came out more intense. We were like, we’ve got to make the final four.”
It appeared the story would be the same in the third quarter, as the Wheeler led only 38-30 with 4 minutes left, as Avery Patterson knocked down two 3s and a runner in the lane.
That’s where Giddens and Staley’s height and athleticism made the difference. Giddens had a steal and dunk to build a 45-31 lead with 1:59 left, and Staley had a strong dunk at the buzzer to put the Wildcats up 49-35 heading into the final quarter.
Giddens took an alley-oop from senior guard Austin Smoak to give Wheeler its largest lead of the game at 53-37, but Peachtree Ridge used another run to get within ten at 53-45 with 2:07 left. The Lions had two chances to pull closer, but their offense went flat.
Staley finished with a team high 17 points, with Smoak and Patterson following with 11 each. Peachtree Ridge was led by Jordan Capps, who scored 14.