RALEIGH — Each play in the final three minutes was just as good as the previous one. Moment after moment, possession after possession, the Millbrook Wildcats reached their potential.
Briana Day's offensive rebound and basket. Mykia Jones' steal and breakaway basket. Alex Tomlinson's tough free throws. All were necessary in Millbrook replacing a year's worth of expectations and pressure with a championship.
Unlike last year's NCHSAA 4A girls title game, these were tears of joy for the Wildcats, who defeated West Forsyth 57-40 Saturday night at Reynolds Coliseum on N.C. State's campus. When the buzzer sounded, each of the 15 Wildcats ran to each other at the midcourt in celebration.
Taylor Houston, a senior guard, knew exactly why and how the Wildcats won their first basketball championship in school history.
"We finally came together as a team," Houston said. "We finally got it down in the one game that it meant the most."
That's exactly what coach Chris East watched at the end of fourth quarter after West Forsyth (25-4) pushed Millbrook (31-2).
The Wildcats tried to pull away at the end the third quarter. Jones, a guard, dribbled the clock down before throwing up a long pass to forward Ryan Flowers. The basket by Flowers gave the Wildcats a four-point lead.
"Mykia played phenomenal," East said. "When she found Ryan at the end of the third quarter that made me a little excited, too."
Yet Millbrook had the exact four-point separation with three minutes left in the game.
The final three minutes were the best the Wildcats played all season. To start, East put Day, a center, back in the game with four fouls.
Jones made her first free throw. She missed the second. With the ball in the air, Day used her 6-foot-4-inch frame to grab the ball over two West Forsyth defenders. Day's basket gave the Wildcats a comfortable seven-point lead.
"I was frustrated for most of the game," said Day, who led the Wildcats with 17 points and was named the game's MVP. "I knew I had to do whatever it took to win."
The Wildcats didn't stop there. They wanted more. In a bold move, Jones stole the ball from West Forsyth guard Janna Dixon at halfcourt. The layup by Jones ignited Millbrook's crowd and each of the Wildcats on the bench.
That's when Tomlinson, a guard, could sense the moment the Wildcats had been waiting for all season. Tomlinson, along with Jones, combined to make nine-of-10 free throws to end the game.
"I'm so happy for all of us because our expectations were so high," Tomlinson said. "I've never won a big-time championship before."
None of the Wildcats, including East, had before Saturday. The Wildcats fell 44-35 to Southwest Guilford in the title game a year ago.
The Wildcats knew they had redeemed themselves.
Day's scoring. Jones' quickness. Tomlinson's toughness. For three minutes, the Wildcats were perfect.
"This means everything to me," Tomlinson said. "It's an amazing feeling."
When Tomlinson left the postgame news conference, she saw her Millbrook classmates and teachers waiting for her down the hallway.
As she walked toward them, Tomlinson lifted her arms to the heavens, ready to be congratulated as a champion.