For the first time since 1998, the state basketball championship in the highest classification is headed to South Georgia.
DJ Bryant scored 21 points, and Tift County used a stellar defensive performance to beat top-ranked Wheeler, 63-49, in a AAAAAA state championship slugfest Saturday in Macon.
It’s the first state title for the Blue Devils since 1994 and the first for a South Georgia team in the highest classification since Savannah won it all 16 years ago. It was intense and all about defense.
Tift County took a 5-3 lead early in the first quarter and didn’t trail again. The Blue Devils answered every Wheeler challenge, and when PJ Horne threw down an alley-oop dunk off an inbounds play, Tift led 47-37 with three minutes to play, and the crowd could feel it.
Tadric Jackson added 15 points and three steals for the Blue Devils, who forced 23 Wheeler turnovers.
Wheeler star Jaylen Brown scored 17 points to lead the Wildcats before fouling out with three minutes left. Elijah Staley had 16 points, and Avery Patterson added nine.
Playing in front of a loud, pro-Blue Devils crowd at the Macon Centreplex, Tift County warmed up in t-shirts with “No Buckets” printed on the back. The Blue Devils weren’t kidding. They held Wheeler, a team averaging close to 70 points, to just 28 points through three quarters and became only the second instate team to defeat the Wildcats this season.
Tift County coach Eric Holland was animated and in and out of his grey sport coat throughout the game. At one point, he threw it up into the air and onto the scorer’s table in disgust. Wheeler coach Doug Lipscomb, who was looking for his sixth state title, kept his jacket on but coached most of the second half with a black towel draped around his neck.
“This is not only about Tift County basketball, but all of South Georgia,” said Holland. “I knew coming in here we were going to win. I’ve never seen our kids that focused.”
With next-level athletes all over the court, both teams pressured each other with hard-nosed man-to-man defense. Open shots were hard to come by. Wheeler made only one of its first seven shots and committed 13 turnovers in the first half. Tift County’s offense also struggled and shot just 26.9 percent from the floor in the first half.
“We had way too many turnovers and did hit shots,” said Lipscomb. “But first and foremost, I want to say how proud I am of the season this kids had.”
Wheeler was called for 29 fouls; Tift County 17.