Tifton Gazette

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March 4, 2014

Wheeler has plenty of offense, tradition

TIFTON — Saturday night, the Tift County Blue Devils will be in the state basketball championship, scheduled to face the Wheeler High Wildcats at 8:45 p.m. at the Macon Centreplex.

MaxPreps declared Wheeler their No. 17 team in their preseason national rankings. Their reasons were good ones. The semifinals appearances by the 'Cats was influential, but so was the roster.

The site said Maleek Catchings was the nephew of Tennessee women's legend Tamika Catchings. There are also the Abdur-Rahim siblings, Malik and Bilal. If that surname looks familiar, yes, they are the twin brothers of Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Shareef graduated from Wheeler in 1995, missing playing Tift by a year.

The recognizable surnames are just part of what the 'Cats offer. During the state tournament, their biggest games have come from Elijah Staley, Avery Patterson and Jaylen Brown.

Brown had 21 in the semis against Pebblebrook, 20 against North Gwinnett and 35 against Shiloh, a 93-90 contest that went to three overtimes. Staley had 24 against Shiloh and 17 with Pebblebrook. Patterson hit six 3-pointers against Shiloh.

Staley, who also plays football, will be going to Mississippi State. Patterson has inked with Western Kentucky.

Their record is an impressive 28-5. Like Tift, only one loss has come in state. Theirs was at Milton. And like Tift, they have been beaten by Florida's Montverde Academy. The Devils were beaten 76-53 while Wheeler was defeated 74-46.

In the tournament, they have played Peachtree Ridge (85-54), Shiloh, at North Gwinnett (61-58) and Pebblebrook (66-47).

Joseph Wheeler High was part of Cobb's big growth in the 1960s. Coincidentally, their opponent in the semifinals, Pebblebrook, was also part of the expansion. Both opened as high schools in the same year, 1965.

The Wildcats dabbled with the state playoffs off and on, going to the quarterfinals once, but the real history started when Doug Lipscomb took over in 1992.

Lipscomb, who played a season at Middle Tennessee for Stan Simpson, wasted no time building up his team. His first tournament appearance was a state championship in 1994. They were runners-up in 1995 to Dunwoody and made the semis again in 1996. The team that kept them out of the finals that year was Tift County, who demolished them 67-44.

That encounter was the only one the boys teams have had with each other. Since 1996, Wheeler has gone on to win four more state titles (2002, 2003, 2005 and 2009) and finish second once (2008).

Tift came as close as runners-up in 2004, falling to South Gwinnett and semifinals appearances in 2007 and 2011.

In this year's tournament, they have defeated both last year's state champion, Norcross, and runner-up, Hillgrove.

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