Taylor Houston will keep her royal blue poker chip in her sock Saturday. So will Alex Tomlinson. Ryan Flowers will do the same.
The chips will stay there during Millbrook’s shootaround, the bus trip to Reynolds Coliseum and in pregame warm-ups.
Just minutes before Millbrook’s NCHSAA 4A state championship game against West Forsyth, Houston, Tomlinson, Flowers and the rest of the Wildcats will pull out their chips. Coach Chris East will hold out a plastic container and one by one, each player will drop their chip in.
The ritual is a reminder for the Wildcats to be “All In” – a concept the team has needed to focus on all season, Houston says.
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“We actually care about each other and we know how to talk to each other now,” Houston said. “That’s one of the hardest things that we’re starting to figure out.”
The Wildcats (30-2) learned from the New York Giants, who used the poker chip ritual late in their recent Super Bowl winning season.
Millbrook introduced its own version of “All In” for its conference championship game against Broughton. It’s no surprise to Houston, a senior guard, that the Wildcats have played their best since then, earning a second straight trip to the state title game.
Saturday’s game means a lot to these Wildcats, who fell 44-35 to Southwest Guilford in the championship game a year ago. They want redemption.
What’s been a surprise – both pleasant and discouraging at times – is the path Millbrook took to return the title game.
The Wildcats say this season was tougher than last season.
Players have been suspended. Others left the team three weeks ago, just before the playoffs started. And there was one game that ended with the Wildcats fighting among themselves in the locker room.
“This has been the hardest season in my 15 years,” East said. “I knew this was going to be difficult because of all the pressure the kids put on themselves.”
Tomlinson, a point guard, hasn’t forgotten everything the Wildcats have been through. She’s ready to put her chip in the pot one more time.
“If we win,” Tomlinson said, “that would be a weight lifted off our shoulders.”
The first bad sign came in the holiday tournament in December.
Millbrook had won 12 games to start the season, all in comfortable fashion.
Just before the tournament, East suspended Flowers, a forward, and guards Katelyn Mitchell and Brianna Hinton for violating team rules. With the trio on the bench, Millbrook lost 50-45 to Myers Park in the championship game.
East faced more difficulties after the suspensions. Some players were upset with their playing time. Others wanted to score more. Through it all, the Wildcats still expected to go undefeated in Cap Eight conference play.
That didn’t happen.
Millbrook lost to Broughton 55-49 on its home court after building a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. While Broughton was rallying, East saw teammates yell at one another.
“That loss let us know everything wasn’t going to get handed to us,” Flowers said.
The clash continued after the game.
The Wildcats yelled at each other in the locker room. East shouted at his players. They shouted back.
More than 20 minutes went by.
Soon after East left the locker room, the Wildcats’ argument escalated, to the point East had to separate teammates.
“There was a lot of tension,” Tomlinson said. “It was the turning point in our season, and we needed it. We were going through the motions.”
Millbrook won the rest of its games in the regular season.
Yet deep down East knew his Wildcats weren’t giving maximum effort. Relationships needed to be stronger.
Assistant coach Kevin Holland knew it, too.
“We’re talented individuals,” Holland said. “But talented individuals get beat. We have to be a team that is committed to doing this the right way.”
Millbrook beat Sanderson 60-45 on Feb. 21 to advance to the conference tournament championship game.
After the game, two players came to East with a message: They were leaving the team because they weren’t playing enough.
The news spread to the rest of the Wildcats the next day. Something needed to be done.
Before practice, Holland showed East a video, one he thought might keep the Wildcats together. In a small conference room, the team watched quarterback Eli Manning talk about how every player on the Giants needed to be committed to win the Super Bowl. Plus there was defensive back Antrel Rolle, who said he had just been giving 90 percent before the Giants’ run in the postseason.
The Wildcats could relate to Rolle. Holland then brought out the poker chips and had every player write their initials and jersey number on it.
How did Holland know the Wildcats were ready to win a title? He wanted do the poker-chip experiment for one game. Houston had other ideas.
“Can we do this before every game now?” she asked Holland.
The Wildcats know what happened last year. They’ve been reminded by East.
In practice Tuesday, East surprised the Wildcats by showing them a slideshow of last season’s title game. The Wildcats were crying in many of the pictures.
“We had to see those to get focused on our goal again,” Houston said. “We don’t want that again. I think that’s how everyone was feeling.”
Looking back, Houston said she could have done a lot of things different against Southwest Guilford. She could’ve played better defense and made her layups.
Alex Tomlinson feels the same.
“I wasn’t really there that game,” Tomlinson said. “We panicked.”
Flowers believes losing in the title game happened for a reason. Maybe, she said, the Wildcats needed to lose in order to grow. Maybe the team wouldn’t have been as motivated without the defeat.
What Flowers knows for sure is how the Wildcats need to play to win their first basketball championship in school history.
“We don’t have time for individual play,” Flowers said.
She and the other 14 Wildcats have their poker chips.
If the Wildcats play the way they have throughout the postseason, they won’t have to worry about the disappointment of a heartbreaking loss ever again. The Wildcats will be forever known as one thing: state champions.