Though the Wildcats lost their 6-foot-10 junior, they weren’t derailed.
Wheeler went on an 18-4 run without Giddens, en route to 67-52 victory in Saturday’s Class AAAAAA state semifinal at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion.
A five-time state champion, Wheeler (28-5) advanced to the championship game for the first time since 2009. It will face Tift County next Saturday at the Macon Centreplex.
“This feels great,” said Elijah Staley, who scored seven of his 17 points during the third-quarter run and had nine rebounds.
Wheeler was able to avoid a repeat of last year’s semifinals at Georgia Tech, when it lost to Hillgrove.
“We’ve worked really hard this season to get back to this point and get to the final,” Staley added. “After losing here last year, we knew what we had to do.”
When Giddens returned at the start of the fourth quarter, with Wheeler owning a 45-36 lead, the Wildcats didn’t let up. They outscored Pebblebrook 22-16 in the final period, punctuating the victory with several thunderous dunks from Giddens, Staley and Jaylen Brown.
“The coaches told us at halftime that we had to get to the boards and rebounds and get our hands on loose balls,” Staley said. “That’s what we were told to do. I think, when Daniel went out, we didn’t necessarily become a faster team, but we did have to work harder to get rebounds.
“He’s the guy in the middle that usually gets the rebounds, so when he went out, we all had to fill his role. We just got after everything.”
After trailing by 13 early in the fourth, Ty Hudson’s 3-pointer pulled the Falcons (24-6) within 51-42 with 5:05 remaining. But Pebblebrook continued to struggle from the field and couldn’t get back to within single digits the rest of the game.
“We couldn’t make shots there at the end,” Pebblebrook coach George Washington said. “We had some great looks at the basket. The shots didn’t fall for us.”
The first half was a see-saw battle that saw Wheeler take an early lead before Pebblebrook came back to stake a 10-8 margin. The Wildcats closed the period on a 10-0 run, only to see the Falcons erupt and take a 32-25 halftime lead.
Chris Nelson took over in the second quarter, draining two 3-pointers and scoring 12 of Pebblebrook’s 22 points in the frame. His 3 at the 6:45 mark ignited a 14-4 run that put the Falcons ahead 24-22.
Tied 25-all after a 3-pointer from Wheeler’s Avery Patterson, Pebblebrook closed the quarter on a 7-0 run, capped by Derek Ogbeide’s jumper.
Patterson finished with 14 points, including four 3-pointers, while Giddens had a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Brown contributed 17 of his 21 points in the second half, including eight during the third quarter.
Hudson led Pebblebrook with 16 points. Nelson finished with 12 points, Kevin Murph had 10 and Ogbeide seven points and nine rebounds.