MARIETTA — For roughly a quarter and a half of its first-round Class AAAAAA state tournament game, Peachtree Ridge managed to run stride-for-stride with nationally ranked Wheeler.
Eventually, however, the Wildcats’ athleticism, size and experience took over as Division I prospects Avery Patterson and Jaylen Brown led a second-quarter surge that helped Wheeler run away with an 85-54 win Saturday at Douglas Lipscomb Gymnasium.
“They’re pretty athletic,” Peachtree Ridge coach Keith Arrington said of the Wildcats (24-5) after they ended the Lions’ season at 12-17. “Their front line could play in the NCAA tournament (this season) and be pretty successful. They’ve got four Division I players.
“We just missed some shots. They made us take tough shots. They’re so big around the rim, we were getting some shots we’d make normally. Then youth caught up with us and we made a couple of mistakes, and they got a couple of runouts and dunks. There’s not much you can do about it.”
Despite a starting line-up that included three sophomores and a freshman, the youthful Lions didn’t seem intimidated by the Wildcats at the onset.
Both teams started out quickly, with Brown slamming home an alley-oop pass from Makhai Eastmond right off the opening tip, and Aaron Augustin answering for Peachtree Ridge with a 3-pointer just 29 seconds into the game.
From that point, the two teams battled back and forth throughout the first half, which Brown admits caught Wheeler a little by surprise.
“Yeah, I was (surprised) because that’s how we play,” said the 6-foot-7 junior, who is being recruited by most major college programs in the country. “They took quick shots and let some long rebounds and we just took it to the net.”
The lead changed hands 10 times with two ties before Wheeler began to take control early in the second quarter.
After a stickback by Amir Warnock and an Augustin free throw gave the Lions a 20-18 lead with 6:11 left in the first half, the Wildcats began to combine intense trapping pressure on defense with crisp ball movement on the offensive end.
Elijah Staley’s alley-oop dunk from Brown ignited a 19-4 run that vaulted Wheeler into its biggest lead at the half at 37-24 following Daniel Giddens’ emphatic slam of an offensive rebound with 2:10 left in the half.
A 3-pointer by Augustin — his third of the half — with 18 seconds left briefly pulled the Lions back to within 10, but Giddens hit a pair of free throws with two-tenths of a second left to send Wheeler into intermission with a 41-29 cushion.
Once again, Peachtree Ridge tried to start out quickly in the second half.
Augustin drove down the lane for a floater and Warnock followed with a layup in transition off an assist from Augustin to cut the Wheeler lead to single digits at 41-33 just 31 seconds into the third quarter.
But it didn’t take the Wildcats long to answer, with Giddens getting ahead of the pack on a fastbreak for a dunk and Staley adding a jumper along the baseline over a 28-second span to push the lead back to double digits.
And the Wildcats began to sense an opportunity to put the young Lions away.
They outscored Peachtree Ridge 20-10 over the remainder of the quarter, with Staley adding nine more points and Patterson knocking down two 3-pointers and a 2-pointer for eight of his game-high 26 points, as Wheeler blew the lead open to 65-43 by the end of the period and never looked back.
“We have a veteran team this year,” said Brown, who finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. “Youth has a lot to (say) in this tournament. … We just wanted to stay aggressive, … be patient on offense, be poised and everything would fall into place.”
For Peachtree Ridge, it was a lesson Arrington hopes will make them better in the future, which Augustin gave a glimpse of with his team-high 19 points and three assists.
“We tried to call some timeouts, slow it down and do some things,” Arrington said. “We had a pretty good plan as far as backing off the point guard a little bit, but it was tough.”
Romello White joined his fellow sophomore Augustin in double-figure scoring with 12 points and pulled down rebounds, while 6-8 senior Warnock finished his Peachtree Ridge career with eight points and nine boards.
For Wheeler, Patterson and Brown were joined in double figures by Giddens with 14 points, to go with eight rebounds, and Staley with 13 points.