LILBURN -- With their regions matched to start the state tournament, Berkmar's game with Class AAAAAA power Wheeler could turn out to be a preview of what's to come.
If so, the Patriots have no reason to be unsure of themselves this time.
Down by 12 points after five minutes Saturday night, Berkmar battled back to force overtime and gave visiting Wheeler all it could handle before losing 68-63.
Tim Rowe, who scored with eight seconds left in regulation to force the extra period, had 18 points and 16 rebounds as the Patriots (12-11) almost upset the Wildcats (16-6).
"It was like a state tournament game," Rowe said. "It was a good opportunity for us to play a game like this. It should help get us ready for the region tournament."
With one week in the regular season remaining and the Region 8-AAAAAA tournament looming, that's why Berkmar coach Greg Phillips added the game.
"We know now that we can play with a top team like Wheeler," Phillips said. "I was pleased with the way we fought back and our effort. This was good preparation for us. I think we can really learn from it."
Berkmar, which reached the state quarterfinals last year, are two-time defending Region 8 champions. But this is a relatively new team, with Rowe, a 6-foot-10 junior, and senior C.J. Foster the only returning regulars.
Foster had 16 points and four assists against Wheeler. Malcolm Hannah, a senior transfer from Brookwood, scored 11 and junior James Sanders came off the bench to contribute eight points.
Junior guard Avery Patterson led Wheeler with 17 points -- seven of them coming in overtime. Senior guard Justin Smoak scored 15 for the Wildcats and 6-foot-7 junior football and basketball standout Elijah Staley had 11 points and eight rebounds.
Wheeler had the overall height advantage, but Rowe made sure that the Wildcats didn't get easy baskets inside. He altered shot after shot while picking up just one foul.
"We need him to stay on the court and he did that," Phillips said.
"Coach tells me to keep my arms up and build a wall," Rowe said.
Wheeler scored the game's first eight points and led 16-4 before Rowe, who finished with a trio of 3-pointers, hit back-to-back shots from behind the arc to get Berkmar within 18-12 at the end of the first quarter.
Wheeler used a 9-2 run to go up 29-18 in the second quarter and, after Berkmar cut the lead back to five points, led 35-27 at intermission on Tim Sanders' 3-pointer at the buzzer. Rowe had 12 points and 10 rebounds in the first half.
Down 47-39 going into the fourth quarter, Berkmar got within 51-50 on Rowe's 3-pointer with 1:28 remaining. But Wheeler then built its lead back to five before Hannah made a 3-pointer with 29.9 seconds left. After a missed free throw by Wheeler on a one-and-one opportunity, Rowe scored from inside to force overtime.
Patterson hit a 3-pointer, though, to start the extra four-minute period and Wheeler led throughout the OT.
Now Berkmar has a key 8-AAAAAA game at home on Tuesday against Brookwood as it hopes to earn the No. 3 seed for the region tournament.
"We control our own destiny," said Phillips, whose team is tied with Dacula at 8-6 just ahead of 8-7 Brookwood.
After the near miss against Region 5-AAAAAA leader Wheeler, the Patriots also feel better about their postseason chances.