Garner erased the one blemish on its season with a thrilling half of basketball Saturday afternoon at the Crown Coliseum, rallying from a 14-point deficit to down Millbrook 84-81 and advance to its first state 4A boys championship game in school history.
The Trojans (26-1) will meet Charlotte Ardrey Kell (28-1) for the state championship at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
Garner rode the productive drives to the basket of eastern regional MVP Alex Reed, Thomas Allen and Julius Barnes to prevail after a thrilling second half. Reed and Allen finished with 21 points each.
“They played one of the most inspired halves of basketball in the history of the program,” Garner coach Eddie Gray said of his team. “Millbrook is a heck of a basketball team. To beat a team like that makes this feel like an even greater accomplishment.”
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Garner, which suffered its only loss of the season to Millbrook during the Holiday Invitational in Raleigh in December, took its first lead since a 6-5 advantage when Barnes drilled a pull up jumper for a 64-63 lead with 6:12 to play. The Trojans kept that lead until a surprisingly timed Millbrook scoring flurry.
With the Trojans up 75-72, Wildcats coach Scott McInnes was whistled for a technical foul objecting to a foul call. Gray was also whistled for a technical in the first half. After McInnes’ technical, Garner hit two of the four free throws it took after the call and Millbrook countered with a 9-2 scoring run that included a big Trejon Jacob 3-pointer and two Robert Brown free throws for an 81-79 lead with a minute to play.
“The run we made at the end was crazy,” McInnes said. “I think the guys really played well after I got the tech, especially without Chris (Clemons) out there.”
The Wildcats lost Clemons, their leading scorer, to fouls early in the fourth and Brown missed time in both halves because of foul trouble. Garner’s Jashaun Smith and Alex Reed finished the game with four fouls each.
Clemons played on an injured foot and admitted he was limited. He totaled a season-low nine points and struggled to get away from the man defense of Garner’s Barnes.
“When Chris comes to me and asks me that we don’t run any more plays for him, that tells you how he felt,” McInnes said.
But somehow, the Wildcats still had the lead with a minute to play. Garner got the ball to Barnes after an inbound pass and he scooped a shot up and around the 6-foot-9 Brown and in the basket to tie the game at 81.
“We kept our composure,” Gray said, “finally got the ball inbounds and into the right guy’s hands and he made a heck of a play.”
Millbrook forced the ball quickly up the court, but Barnes forced a turnover. Allen came up with it and was fouled with 12.5 seconds left.
The sophomore hit both free throws to put the Trojans up 83-81, then pulled down the biggest of Garner’s 52 rebounds on the night. The one that followed a Brown miss in the paint that could have tied the game with four seconds to play.
Garner outrebounded the Wildcats 52-31. Reed had a game-high 12 boards and Smith pulled down 11 for the Trojans.
“We knew we had to come out smashing on the glass,” McInnes said. “That was a key for us. We didn’t stick to the plan.”
Allen made another free throw after a foul with 2.6 seconds left and Garner tipped the ball out of bounds to give Millbrook just three-tenths of a second to get off a potential game-tying shot. The Wildcats never got that chance as Nick Kuhns tipped the ball away, starting a wild Garner celebration.
“We learned a lot from that loss,” Barnes said of the Trojans’ earlier 16-point loss to Millbrook in December. “We knew we lost that game in the third quarter, so we weren’t going to let that happen again. We just focused on executing and doing all of the little things.”
Garner’s players raved about their play in the third quarter and they did outscore Millbrook 20-16 in the frame, but it was the fourth that made them state finalists. The Trojans rolled up 28 points and were a confident, poised team on offense with Reed and all-tournament team selections Allen and Barnes scoring on key drives.
“They were concentrating on our other shooters,” Reed said of his play, “and my teammates just kept feeding me the ball,” Reed said.
Defensively, Garner just kept coming up with the ball or a stop when it mattered most.
Brown led Millbrook with 20, while his teammates and fellow all-tournament team selections Andrew Evans and Jacob had 17 each. Smith and Barnes had 17 each for Garner.
Millbrook (26-3)loses a group of five seniors who have won four conference championships and claimed more wins than any other class in school history.
“We all thought this was the year we were supposed to win it all,” Clemons said. “Garner just played a great game.”