He was pulled out of Wheeler’s game at archrival Walton momentarily, after missing an uncontested dunk late in the third quarter, while the Wildcats were attempting to rally from an 11-point deficit.
Once Staley re-entered the game at the start of the fourth, he not only stopped missing dunks, he stopped missing shots. His next dunk attempt was not only successful, it gave Wheeler its first lead since the first quarter.
The Wildcats continued to preserve their lead, expanding on it before eventually winning 78-65 in front of a capacity crowd.
“I saw how hard it was for the team, missing (dunks) like that,” Staley said. “I had to get over the hump, play harder and get that ball into the hole.”
With the victory, Wheeler (20-4, 12-0) wrapped up the No. 1 seed going into the Region 5AAAAAA tournament next week at Etowah. With it comes a bye into the semifinals, and an automatic trip to the state playoffs.
Jaylen Brown finished with 32 points for the Wildcats, scoring 10 points inside the paint in the second half and going 5-for-7 from the free-throw line. In the first half, he was 7-of-8 at the line to keep Wheeler in the game.
Staley finished with 19 points, while Daniel Giddens was also in double figures with 13.
After Staley’s dunk gave Wheeler the lead back, he went in for a layup on the Wildcats’ next possession and then added a three-point play for a 57-51 cushion.
Wheeler continued to use their size to its advantage in the fourth quarter, with the 6-foot-7 Staley, 6-6 Brown and 6-10 Giddens attacking Walton (20-4, 11-3) inside. Wheeler also stepped up defensively, denying the Raiders a point during the first three-plus minutes of the fourth quarter.
Wheeler took control with roughly 2:30 to play, when Makhai Eastmond converted a layup off a steal to open up a nine-point lead.
Walton jumped ahead early by shooting 11-of-14 from the field in the first quarter, and it once built a 25-9 lead.
The Raiders, however, started to cool off in the second quarter, going 4-for-14, and Wheeler cutting into the lead by attacking the basket and getting on the free-throw line.
The Wildcats were 11-of-15 from the line in the first half.
Walton got hot again in the third quarter, when a 3-pointer by Nick Wells and a three-point play by Jay Bowyer opened up a 12-point lead. But Wheeler got within three late in the quarter, going on a 10-1 run fueled by eight points on dunks by Brown, Giddens and Staley.
“I think we let this one get away,” Walton coach Joe Goydish said. “(Wheeler has) four Division I players, and when we have an opportunity to push the lead, we need to take advantage of it. We were up by 11 in the third quarter and they used their size on us.”
Wells had a double-double for Walton with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Bowyer was also in double figures with 14 points, and Elijah Weems chipped in with 13.
The loss put the Raiders in a virtual tie with Milton for the region’s No. 2 seed. While Walton completed its region schedule with Friday’s game, Milton — which entered the day at 9-3 in region play — had a game with Cherokee on Friday and with Wheeler today.
Milton would hold the tiebreaker with Walton, based on its 14-point win over the Raiders in January. Walton did have a win over the Eagles, but only by five points.