MACON, Ga. - What transpired Friday evening inside the Macon Centreplex surprised many in attendance. Don't count the Calhoun Yellow Jackets or their many fans among them.
Calhoun earned statewide respect in the GHSA Class AA boys' basketball championship game, playing nationally ranked Greater Atlanta Christian to the wire before losing, 58-55. It was the closest game the 32-0 Spartans have played this season and was not secured until Jireh Wilson's tying 3-point attempt hit off the rim on the game's final possession.
"I told the guys that they have nothing to hang their heads about," Calhoun coach Vince Layson said. "They just played the games of their lives against a team nobody gave them a chance against. If nothing else, this team and this program earned some respect today, that's for sure. The Wilkins kid is something special, and he made a believer out of me."
The Yellow Jackets (25-3) had no answer for 6-foot-7 GAC senior Isaiah Wilkins. The University of Virginia signee had 29 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots and was at his best in the final period when Calhoun was doing its usual good work. Wilkins scored his team's first 10 points in the quarter on 5-of-5 shooting, including three jumpers, a putback and a runner in the lane.
"I just knew I had to take control because they weren't going away," said Wilkins, the stepson of former University of Georgia and Atlanta Hawks star Dominique Wilkins. "They played a great game, but we were tested coming in and never felt we were going to lose."
Despite Wilkins' heroics, the Jackets' defensive game plan worked to near perfection. Layson did not want to give too much attention to Wilkins, preferring to stick with the team's man-to-man defense. And the other Spartans struggled, including going 0-for-8 from 3-point range.
"Calhoun played a great game and did a great job on us, as good as any team has played all year against us," said GAC coach Eddie Martin, whose team has now won back-to-back titles and will enter next season on a 50-game winning streak. "But these guys have been resilient all year long and showed it again today. They've had a target on their backs all year, but they never lost their nerve or let it get to them."
A Wilkins jump shot from the foul line gave GAC a 51-47 lead with three minutes to play, and Calhoun nearly let the game get away with a 1-for-8 shooting span. However, down five, Kaelen Riley hit a 3-pointer with 41 seconds to go, and following two Cam Boyd free throws, Wilson hit another bomb to cut the lead to one with 29 seconds left.
The teams exchanged free throws and GAC inbounded up one with 17 seconds to play. The Jackets attempted to foul Troy Morrison in the backcourt, but the guard eluded the contact and passed to streaking Garrett Covington for a layup. Calhoun's Wilson drove quickly downcourt, cut to the middle and launched his potential tying shot that went long.
"There is nothing more I could have asked of this team," Layson concluded. "They executed the game plan well and gave themselves a chance to win."
Riley had 15 of his 18 points in the second half to lead Calhoun, while Chandler Curtis added 16, keeping the Jackets in the game early with three 3-pointers.
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296.