At 5:41 PM today, Wheeler principal Peter Giles announced on Twitter that the Wildcats had hired 2x state championship winning head coach Larry Thompson away from Greenforest to fill the void left behind by 6x state champion and 25-year leader of Wheeler, Doug Lipscomb. Kyle Sandy discusses what the move means for Wheeler and Greenforest as one school pegs the GHSA’s most successful coach over the past two seasons while the other looks for direction in a crossroads for the program.
A controversial double-technical spoiled what was an outstanding game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as No. 3 Wheeler held off No. 4 Gainesville 82-69.
Gainesville (11-4) entered with just one actual loss and two via forfeit at Lanierland while Wheeler (14-5) strolled in with five straight wins. The litmus test that followed was as stiff as any in the state could face; the feisty Red Elephants at the six-time state champs, highlighted by last season’s 6A title team.
Wheeler entered the game without Cam Jordan at forward, leaving much work to do for the supporting cast. The Wildcats got everything and more from Makhai Eastmond and Kenny Aninye. Eastmond scored 13 points – nine in the first half – while Aninye netted 14 and grabbed six rebounds in his new found starting role. The 13-point final score was not a reflection of how the game unfolded however.
Georgia State signee D’Marcus Simonds started the three-point barrage by hitting Messiah Dorsey to open the game. The Red Elephants sank five threes in the opening period, two apiece via Michael White and Dorsey. Gainesville would finish with seven triples in the first half, but only added one more to the tally in the second half.
While the Elephants were bombing from deep, Darius Perry and unsung hero Makhai Eastmond kept the Wildcats afloat. Perry scored seven of his game-high 21 in the opening period while Eastmond hit two threes to help the ‘Cats head into the second quarter down 19-18.
Wheeler opened the second quarter on a quick 7-0 spurt and at the 6:12 mark now up 25-19 after taking their first lead of the game with 7:11 to play, Simonds picked up his third foul. The Wildcats extended their run to 16-to-4 before Simonds checked back in, the Elephants now trailing 34-23 with 3:50 remaining in the first half. Everything seemed to click whenever Simonds was on the floor and while Georgia Tech signee Romello White took a breather on the bench, Gainesville began to attack the basket. Tae Turner, who scored all 10 of his points in the first half, drove for an And-1 and cut the Wildcat lead to 36-30 with 2:06 left.
With Simonds back on the floor, Gainesville made another push. He threw down a dunk in transition then added another bucket in the open floor to make it 47-44 before picking up his fourth foul 30 seconds later at the 4:31 mark.
The pesky Eastmond hit a jumper to stabilize things for Wheeler and would spark an 11-5 run to open up a 58-49 lead with 1:29 to play in the third. Then Simonds checked in. The 6-foot-4 guard willed his team back into the game. Within seconds of re-entering, Simonds picked up an assist, hitting Dorsey for a three and then picked Eastmond’s pocket for a layup to bring the score to 60-54. With seconds remaining and Wheeler holding for a last shot, Simonds played the passing lane, picked off a pass and exploded for a thunderous two-handed jam right before the horn to close the gap to 60-58 entering the fourth. His return to the floor ignited an 11-0 run and gave the Red Elephants all the momentum early in the final period as Gainesville had finally caught up to the Wildcats after Simonds came away with another theft up front and boomed home another slam.
On the next possession, Wheeler was sent to the line. The crowd and Simonds still amped up about the dunk, during the free throw attempts on the other side of the court Eastmond and Simonds were jawing. Simonds, known for his fiery play and emotions, finished the back-and-forth with Eastmond and began walking up to the other side of the floor to get ready for the second free throw. While Simonds approached the play, Eastmond followed close behind… a little too close for the referees as they blew a double-technical. With the game tied at 60 with 7:30 remaining and in the midst of an 11-0 run, Simonds was fouled out on the tech.
Simonds’ final line in limited action read: 14 points, four rebounds, six assists and five steals. With the playmaker fouling out, Gainesville had to turn to Dorsey and Michael White. The two combined for nine points in the quarter, but Gainesville would be outscored 22-to-9 with Simonds fouled out.
Anyine scored five consecutive points to push Wheeler’s lead to 71-67 with 2:54 remaining before Romello White finally began to wear down the smaller Elephant frontline. He scored back-to-back And-1s and sparked a 14-2 run to end the game.
My Take: Gainesville looked as if it were going to live and die by the three-pointer early on in the game but the Red Elephants kept coming even with D’Marcus Simonds saddled with foul trouble. A lack of elite size inside hurt Gainesville, who used a frontline of 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 to try and counter Romello White’s legit 6-foot-8. Sophomore KJ Buffen, who is more of a three, battled valiantly alongside fellow sophomore Bailey Minor against White. Buffen showed flashes offensively with his 12 points, but struggled from the line going 4-of-11 including 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter. Michael White and Messiah Dorsey stretched the defense with their shooting and are great pieces around Simonds. Tae Turner played well with 10 points in the first half, but went scoreless in the second half. Minor blocked four shots, but was never able to establish himself offensively on the low block. Simonds was the best player on the floor today with his explosiveness and quick hands. His plus/minus numbers were through the roof. You take the good with the bad with the caliber of player he is. Some people might classify him as a hot-head with his demeanor on the court, but I liked his emotion and didn’t think any of it was over the top. To be blunt, the referees really botched the double-technical. It didn’t look as if any stern warnings were given and they blew the whistle on a costly interaction which took place in the heat of the moment. Gainesville deserves its top five ranking and will be a scary team to deal with in the AAAAA state tournament.
Wheeler found a way to win without Cam Jordan. As good as Simonds was, Perry was just as good but without the flash. He consistently got big buckets for the Wildcats and went 8-of-8 from the line. Game-ball might have to go to Makhai Eastmond. He is the weakest link for Wheeler but he stepped up big time and played one of his best games, hitting two big threes in the first quarter while Gainesville was on fire and later on baiting Simonds into his fifth foul. Kenny Aninye also played a great game and picked his spots when to attack. His 5-point spurt in the fourth helped give the Wildcats the lead for good. Romello White slammed the door shut with his size as Wheeler began to pound it down low. White posted back-to-back And-1s in the fourth, with the first coming the hard way, cleaning up a miss and powering up strong. He scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter and finished 5-of-8 from the line for the game. Al-Wajid Aminu didn’t have a ton of jaw dropping plays, but boy does the North Florida signee have a motor that doesn’t quit. He is always around the ball when it comes off the rim and is a glue guy that does the little things on defense. He finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Head Coach Roger Kvam, who has directed the Cherokee Warriors for now 13 years, has always given Wheeler fits. After narrow losses to the superior Wildcats last season 51-48, 71-55 and 51-49, this year’s edition of the Warriors looked to get over the hump and thwart powerful No. 3 Wheeler. Cherokee took a 12-5 lead into the second quarter as Wheeler was ice cold. The home standing Warriors took advantage of three three-pointers in the frame to gain the advantage. But as the game wore on, Cherokee’s lack of balance showed and Wheeler’s talent won out. Guard Makhai Eastmond hit Darius Perry on a beautiful backdoor cut early in the second quarter to shake off a lethargic start. The bucket ignited a 17-3 period which gave Wheeler a 22-15 lead at the half.
Kash Jackson and Phillip Cirillo were the only sources of offense for Coach Kvam. The two combined to score all of the team’s points at the half and didn’t receive a third contributor until four minutes left in the third quarter when Jack Carroll sank a three. Cirillo, who led the Warriors with 14 points and nine rebounds, stroked a three and Elisha Mayberry drove for his only points of the game to close out the third quarter and keep the Warriors within striking distance down 33-26.
In the second half and four quarter, Wheeler finally started chipping away at the overmatched Warriors. Al-Wajid Aminu was held scoreless in the first half but provided the Wildcats with an energetic spark. The North Florida signee finished with six points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks and helped the Cats collect nine steals on the night off their trapping press. Aminu’s second chance rebounds and emphatic blocks helped wake up the rest of the Wildcats. After a slow start, Romello White began to eat away at the smaller Cherokee front line. The Georgia Tech signee ended his night with 14 points and 10 rebounds coupled by a few big dunks. Defensively, he swatted away four of Wheeler’s nine blocks as they cruised to the finish line using a 17-to-10 fourth quarter to pull away.
My Take: Wheeler did not impress early on and still didn’t play up to the level that they are capable of. Sometimes, and especially when playing a fundamentally sound team like Cherokee who doesn’t kill themselves with too many mistakes, the Cats play to the level of their competition. A 76-70 loss to the nation’s No. 1 ranked team, Montverde (FL) according to MaxPreps, doesn’t make sense when they struggled to beat Cherokee. Romello White showed some flashes inside, but it was Al-Wajid Aminu’s energy and Darius Perry’s quiet, yet steady play, that finally woke the team up. Perry went on a personal 5-0 run in the second quarter to get the Wildcats back into the game after an early deficit. The second half belonged to Aminu. His length and motor wore down Cherokee. The Warriors remain led by the best boys coach Cherokee County has seen in a long time. Coach Kvam doesn’t always have the talent, but he makes the most out of it, constantly beating good teams (3A No. 3 Morgan County, 57-52) or at least playing them heads-up (SWD 64-56). It’s scary to think what he could do with a couple horses like he had back in the day with Chris Singleton. It’s a shame he transferred to Dunwoody his final season. Cherokee will go as far as Phillip Cirillo and Kash Jackson take them this season. Jackson is the only senior on the team which breeds optimism for the future. Cirillo has exploded onto the scene as a junior and is receiving some D-1 looks after a strong offseason. Playing such a big role as a junior will only help his progression towards his senior season. He looks to have a similar success like Michael Kvam did circa 2009-10 as a big guard who could score, facilitate, rebound and lead.