Thomas Allen was on fire and he was ice cold at the same time. Whatever your late-game clutch sports cliché of choice is, he was it Tuesday night.
He had one Garner assistant coach rubbing a cold towel on his neck and another holding an ice bag on the back of his neck. His biggest fear at the moment: passing out and missing out on the fantastic finish to what would be the most memorable and the last high school basketball game played in the current configuration of what the Trojan faithful called Trojan Coliseum.
“I’ve never felt it as hot in a gym as it felt right then,” Allen said. “I just didn’t want to go down because of the heat.”
Allen, a silky smooth junior guard, was waiting with baited breath as medical personnel attended to Millbrook’s Gee Kalejaiye on the court. Kalejaiye’s much more serious medical situation had brought the raucous crowd estimated at 1,500 to a dead silence. He had taken a hard fall, apparently landing on his head after colliding with a Garner player in midair. But he was able to leave the court on his own a few minutes later, treated and released from the hospital later that night.
When the action turned back to the court, Garner took advantage of Allen’s fourth-quarter spurt, which nearly single-handedly squelched the Wildcats’ comeback from a 19-point first-half deficit.
After Millbrook’s Jordan Whitfield drilled a 27-foot 3-pointer to give the Wildcats their first lead of the night at 79-78 with 3:24 to play, Allen came down and stroked in a 3-pointer of his own to put Garner back ahead for good. He scored again on Garner’s next possession, then twice more in the Trojans’ next three possessions — the third of those possessions he hit teammate Omari Harris for an alley hoop dunk — to fend off the furious comeback bid from the revenge-minded Wildcats. Millbrook (28-2) was looking for revenge for Garner’s win in last year’s eastern regional final en route to the Trojans’ first state title.
But the Trojans (29-2) had a motivating factor on their side as well. The impending temporary departure from their old gym, which had served the school in its current set up since 1970. They’re set for leave it for two years as most of the current Garner campus is razed and rebuilt. The plan is for the gym to remain standing, but be renovated into a more up-to-date facility when the Trojans teams return from their stay at what will be South Garner High when it officially opens.
The moment wasn’t lost on the program’s leader, Eddie Gray. Gray, a 1970 Garner graduate who started his 40th year as a teacher and coach at the school in February.
“He was really emotional about it being the last game in that gym,” Allen said of Gray’s pregame talk. “He’s spent so much of his life in that gym. He reminded us of how special of a night it was and what a unique atmosphere we had in front of our home fans. He wanted to make sure we didn’t let the opportunity to make a great memory for this community slip away.”
Gray talked from his heart and read from portions of two letters from former players whose lives where somewhat shaped by their experiences playing basketball in the same gym.
“He just talked about how much love he had for this school and how much love the players and alumni who came before us, what this program and place meant to them,” said Garner sophomore Kenyon Burt. “He just wanted to make sure we knew what we had to do in order to do what we wanted to do: leave this gym happy tonight.”
The contest started just as if the Trojans were going to make that happen. Garner raced out to a 19-9 lead less than five minutes in and, despite racking up foul after foul (five of them charging calls) and losing starter Alex Reed to a head contusion, built their lead up to 43-24 midway of the second quarter.
But Millbrook, a state finalist of recent years as well, started its expected comeback before Garner could get to the half. Behind senior Trejob Jacob’s nine points in the last two minutes of play, the Wildcats cut the gap to 49-36 at the break.
It was just what the Trojans expected to happen.
“It was just a heck of a game in a great atmosphere,” Gray said. “We didn’t sub a lot in the second half. Millbrook, what a team. You knew they were going to make us earn it and they did.”
The Wildcats plugged away throughout the third quarter with Jacob hitting 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions to get Millbrook back within single digits.
However, at the same time, a very important trend started on Garner’s end.
Just when the Wildcats seemed to really go on a run, the Trojans answered with a big basket. Like Nick Kuhns’ 3-pointer under pressure in the middle of Jacob’s run of 3-balls. And at the end of the third quarter, another 3 by Kuhns to push the lead back to eight points after a John Burwell bucket had closed Millbrook to within 68-63.
Kuhns finished with 19 points for the Trojans. Jacob had a game-high 33 points.
“We all knew about how Millbrook could score,” Burt said. “We just had to stick with our ball movement and play offense one play at a time.”
Garner cooled Jacob’s run with a combo defense only to see Jordan Whitfield get hot behind the 3-point line.
“We went to a little gimmick defense to try to get (No.) 30 (Trejon Jacob) under control and then 5 (Jordan Whitfield) started hitting everything too,” Gray said. “It was just a classic high school basketball game. You couldn’t get a better venue that what we had here tonight.”
It was a Whitfield 3-pointer that gave Millbrook that 79-78 lead with 3:24 to play before Garner hit on Allen’s 3-pointer.
The Trojans, who will meet 30-1 Cary in the regional championship game, made that lead hold through Kalajaiye’s injury.
Garner had the ball up 89-88 after a Faison Brock bucket for Millbrook, but Allen slipped and lost the ball while trying to cut after taking the inbound pass. Brock came up with the loose ball, setting up a clear out drive by Whitfield.
Whitfield got a somewhat clear look at the basket but it bounced off of the iron and Burt was able to grab the rebound, drawing a foul.
“It was just about who wanted that rebound more at that point and I wanted it,” Burt said. “I was able to get fouled after that, get to the line and help us put it away.”
Burt hit one of the two free throws, extending the lead to two points before Millbrook missed on its shot to tie the game. Omari Harris, who came off of the bench to put in 15 for Garner, grabbed the rebound, was fouled with 1.7 seconds left and salted away Garner’s memorable last game in Trojan Coliseum with two free throws.
“It was just incredible to be a part of it, playing against a team that gave everything they had,” Allen said. “It was an amazing night.”