It was a sold-out event last night at Lovinggood Arena. The McEachern Indians hosted two Elite 8 games on their historic hardwood. The first of the evening was the Lady Indians taking on the Central Gwinnett Black Knights, and the second was the much-anticipated Cobb showdown of McEachern and Wheeler. Expectations were high for a night of exciting basketball, and those in attendance were not disappointed.
This year's Lady Indians team has something to prove. After getting knocked out in the first round of the GHSA state tournament last season, they have been on a mission. As Region 3-7A champions, they had the benefit of playing all three of the playoff games in a comfortable home environment. They quickly dispatched South Gwinnett in the first round but had a more challenging assignment in their second-round matchup with cross-town rival Campbell. Being able to hold off Campbell's second-half surge, the McEachern ladies learned a lot about themselves and to trust each other. Those lessons proved invaluable when Central Gwinnett began to put together a second-half surge of their own.
After a dominant first quarter with the Indians in control of the game by 13 points, the Black Knights flexed their Elite 8 muscle, building a comeback in the second quarter to come within two points by halftime, 31-29.
Coach Phyllis Arthur refocused her team at the intermission, and the Lady Indians obliged by extending their lead to nine by the end of the third, 46-37. But the Black Knights refused to go down without a fight, dwindling the McEachern lead to as few as five points in the early minutes of the final quarter. A pair of long-range triples by Jada Bates, coupled with strong back-to-back drives and perfect lay-up finishes by Kalise Hill in the middle of the fourth, ended any hopes for a Central Gwinnett comeback. Hill finished her evening with 25 points and Bates with 22, including five three-pointers.
The Lady Indians advance to the Final Four to finish what they started in 2021 when they were eliminated by that year's eventual state champ, Marietta, in a single-point loss. They will travel to Georgia State University in Atlanta to take on Brookwood at 6 PM on Saturday, March 4. Tickets are available here.
Immediately after the first game ended, preparations for the next match began. McEachern's and Wheeler's teams streamed onto the court to stretch, warm up, and focus for the upcoming "winner advances to the Final Four" elimination game. Despite being 10 miles apart and two of the premier programs in the state, the two teams had not met on the court this season. With Wheeler's reclassification back to 7A last year and the ensuing region shakeup, Georgia basketball fans anticipated a March showdown between the two Cobb schools.
Both teams entered with the same record, 24-6. Both were region champs and undefeated in region play, McEachern in 3-7A and Wheeler in 5-7A. Both were on 15-game win streaks and had played a grueling national schedule early in the season. On paper, these two teams were very evenly matched.
Four and five-star prospects are also plentiful on both rosters. For the Wildcats, McDonald's All-American and USC-commit Isaiah Collier, fellow USC-commit Arrinten Page, and Iowa State-commit Jelani Hamilton attract a lot of attention. On the Indian side, Rutgers-committed junior Ace Bailey and senior Jamichael Davis, along with Jalen Hilliard and Moses Hipps are menacing on both ends of the court. But the game within the game would be the one-on-one between Collier and Bailey. How would the talented 6'10" junior and the 6'4" senior play and respond to the other?
Early in the first quarter, it became evident that Bailey was up for the challenge: swatting shots away, crashing the boards, and using his long frame to disrupt nearly aspect of the game. His seeming omnipresence was a huge reason for the Indians keeping the game close in the first half. Bailey (10) and Hilliard (9) combined for 19 points, while Collier (10) and Page (12) scored 22. The three-point difference between the duos was also the difference in the halftime score, 32-29 in favor of the visiting Wildcats.
The third quarter started slowly, but a huge jam by Page was the fuse that ignited an explosive quarter for the Wildcat offense. Wheeler outscored McEachern 24-13 in the third and showcased some amazing improvising between Page and Collier. Behind-the-back and no-look passes from Page to a perfectly-positioned Collier for a highlight finish brought the Wildcat fans to life and served to frustrate even the most well-devised and executed defensive plan for the Indians. The chemistry between these two will be a sight to behold at USC next season. Wheeler closed out the third with a 14-point lead and all the momentum, 56-42.
As the final quarter got underway, Ace Bailey took it upon himself to work some magic of his own. He buried two three-pointers to close the gap to eight points but fouled out on the next play trying to stop Collier in transition, and his night was finished. With Ace off the court and none of the Wildcats in foul trouble, it became a strategic game of maintaining the lead for the Wheeler bench and fouling for the Indians. Despite an alley-oop dunk by Page late in the game, the remainder of the fourth quarter saw Wheeler maintain their lead. The Wildcats took the victory, 79-71, ending an impressive season for McEachern and second-year head coach Tremayne Anchrum, Sr.
Wheeler now advances to the 7A Final Four, where they will meet a talented Grayson team at 8 PM on Saturday at Georgia State. The last time these two teams met in the state tournament was the 2020 state championship game, where the Wildcats took the 7A title with a one-point victory, 60-59. Tickets for this game are available here.
Good luck to the Lady Indians and the Wheeler Wildcats in this weekend's Final Four games! All of Cobb County is behind you. Let's go, Indians and Cats!