Despite weeklong weather postponements and a crammed playoff schedule, it will come down to the No. 1 and No. 2 teams Saturday as Millbrook and top-seeded Garner face off inthe N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A Eastern regional final for a chance to play in next week’s state championship.
The teams, also atop The News & Observer’s area rankings, have met once this season. Millbrook won its Holiday Invitational matchup with Garner, 87-71, in December. The game is Garner’s only loss this season, but Millbrook coach Scott McInnes isn’t taking that win as a sign his Wildcats will have an easy road to the state final against the No. 1 seed.
“Garner’s a really, really good team. We were very luck that night,” McInnes said. “We’ve got to just get to work and keep getting better and we’ve got to fix some things. We’ve got a special team too, so it’s a great matchup. The first one’s gone. That was so long ago.”
While Julius Barnes and Thomas Allen of Garner (26-1) said they hadn’t thought much about playing Millbrook (26-2) again after the Trojans’ 75-64 quarterfinal win over No. 4 Winterville South Central on Thursday, head coach Eddie Gray remembers that December game, and particularly the 36 points Campbell commit Chris Clemons put up for Millbrook.
Clemons has averaged 23.2 points per game this season for a Millbrook team averaging nearly 90 points per game. The Wildcats beat No. 3 Fayetteville Seventy-First, 104-79, to advance Thursday.
“The Clemons kid was throwing them in from St. Louis,” Gray said of Garner’s previous meeting with Millbrook. “If anybody could come up with another defense to try against them, I’ll listen. I tried it all, I thought and he kept making them.”
Having two Wake County teams battling for the Eastern regional title is a testament to the level of play in the Triangle, Gray said. Opportunities such as playing in holiday tournaments help prepare players for the big arena and larger stage of the state playoffs.
The Wildcats have been in this position before, at the regional final and facing a Triangle opponent they’ve defeated earlier in the year. Millbrook, in the regional final for the third time in six seasons, ended its season with a 63-57 loss to Apex in this game last year.
“I think that’s really going to help us,” McInnes said. “I think last time we took Apex a little lightly because we beat them earlier in the year. I don’t think these guys are going to do it with the same situation with Garner. That game was two months ago, again, Garner’s gotten a lot better. They played great (Thursday night) and they’re a fantastic team, and we’ve gotten a lot better, so that’s the nice thing about it.”
D. Clay Best contributed to this report.