Down four with 1.7 seconds left, Millbrook players braced for the inevitable: another season-ending loss to Garner.
Tears began swelling in the eyes of some Wildcats players as they broke from what became their final huddle of the season.
Millbrook found its miraculous second-half effort and the hope that followed abruptly snatched away Tuesday night in a 92-88 loss to Garner, the defending N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A boys’ basketball champion that eliminated the Wildcats a year ago.
Garner faces Cary in the East regional final in Fayetteville on Saturday.
The Wildcats on Tuesday trailed by 19 in the first half, as Garner hit six of 10 3-pointers. Trojans star junior Thomas Allen scored 12 points in the opening quarter.
Allen, who led Garner with 23 points and six assists, hit a deep 3-pointer and on the next possession scored off a steal to give the Trojans a 22-11 lead in the first. Garner was winning on the boards, second-chance shots that cost Millbrook.
Two of the Wildcats’ leading scorers, senior John Burwell and junior Jordan Whitfield, were both in foul trouble at halftime, limiting their offense.
But when the Cats returned from the locker room, they appeared a different team. They played with a renewed sense of purpose, led by a charge from senior forward Trejon Jacob. He buried four consecutive 3s as Millbrook rallied.
The Wildcats fought for rebounds, senior forward Faison Brock finishing with a game-high 15.
The baskets fell in their favor, five straight shots going through as they battled back.
Down to the final play, they left it all on the court.
“I’m so lucky. I’m mean, I’m so lucky to coach these guys. I hope you know that’s not just coach’s talk,” Millbrook coach Scott McInnes said. “It’s a true brotherhood.”
And like a band of brothers, Millbrook never faltered.
The Wildcats, who finished the season 28-2 – a school record for most wins in a season – came out and won the third quarter. They outscored the hosts 27-22, and several players were involved.
Jacob strung together a shootout, Burwell distributed key feeds and senior Monte Harris scored all of his eight points in the period.
While Whitfield didn’t score in the third, he sank four 3-pointers in Millbrook’s final quarter of the year.
At the 3:36 mark, Whitfield drained a 3 from Burwell to give the Wildcats their first lead since the opening quarter at 79-78.
But with Garner in need, Allen responded to the Whitfield basket with five rapid points to reverse the lead.
Millbrook later trailed 89-88 when Brock came up with a huge steal, 15 seconds showing.
What a play. A dive and a quick timeout. That’s Faison. He’s a guy who does it all. He took a bunch of charges, he rebounds and he’s a winner.
Millbrook coach Scott McInnes
Two offensive rebounds by the Trojans at the close ultimately undid Millbrook’s comeback.
“The first half hurt us, with John and Jordan being in foul trouble,” McInnes said. “(In the second half), we made shots, played better on defense, we didn’t lose Thomas as much. But the biggest thing is that’s a brotherhood in there. Guys were crying, and you could tell they left it all on the floor. Jordan, even with one second left, not quitting; he almost had a four-point play in the playoffs.”
Millbrook got impressive contributions from its four senior starters, including Jacob, who led the game with 33 points and was emotional as the teams lined up to shake hands.
In Millbrook’s third-round game against Apex, it was Jacob’s two free throws that sent the team to the next round.
It was only his second season playing with the Wildcats, as he transferred in from Houston as a junior.
“We’re glad God decided to move him here. When we got him, I hate to say it like this, but he was a young boy,” McInnes said. “He’s grown into a man, and he’s just competing so much now. Before, he used to have one great play and then he’d take the next two or three off. Now he’s competing to win play-by-play.
“He’s become a man, and that’s what we’re trying to do: build these kids into men.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan