The Cobb County Civic Center was sold out and finding a parking spot felt like Christmas shopping at the mall.
We all came to see the show. It was Wheeler versus Pebblebrook. It was the game that every hoop head in Atlanta had circled on their calendar and saved on their phone.
This was the show that we all wanted to see. The power team versus power player. The storied versus the startup.
The city of Atlanta has seen this show before. In years past the lead role was played by the likes of Shareef Abur-Rahim, Dwight Howard, Randolph Morris, Josh Smith, Louis Williams, Javaris Crittenton, Jodie Meeks, JJ Hickson, Gani Lawal, Ryan Harrow and so many other Peach State stars.
This particular year the leading man is Collin Sexton. This particular Wheeler team was a preseason top 25 national program, as high as No. 2 overall in the country. The starting lineup is as rich of a starting lineup you will find in all of high school basketball. All five starters will play Division I basketball.
We all came out to see the theatre on the hardwood.
Wheeler didn’t want the script to go that way as the game opened up. The Wildcats owned the glass, limiting second chance opportunities for an opportunistic team like the Falcons. Wheeler didn’t allow Pebblebrook to have clean looks to the basket.
The tone, at least in the first 16 minutes of action, looked to be set by the familiar Cobb County powerhouse.
Darius Perry, the Louisville-bound defensive stopper, played Sexton as well as anyone has all season long in the first half. Sexton couldn’t find his shot in the first 16 minutes of action.
“Collin kept coming over to me and saying ‘I told you we should play here. I can’t shoot in here.’ He was tripping because he had a bad shooting game here when played Wheeler here as an eighth grader,” Pebblebrook head coach George Washington said.
One of the reasons was Wheeler’s dominance on the glass. Wheeler had an excellent game from Auburn-bound junior EJ Montgomery. The 6-foot-10 junior finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Southern Cal-bound Jordan Usher finished with 13 points and 12 boards. The two owned the paint in the first half.
Their ability to crash the boards limited the all-gas, no-brakes offense of Pebblebrook.
“We couldn’t run because they got every offensive rebound, every defensive rebound. We spent the first half taking the ball out. When you take the ball out, you can’t get into transition. Part of this team’s success is built on transition. You can get out and run,” Washington said.
“But we couldn’t do that because we didn’t rebound. We had one message at half time - rebound. All five guys have to rebound to win. Mervin James grabbed every rebound. He fought, jumped, pushed, shoved, everything. He grabbed everything. That’s the key to us winning. We are tougher than any team we play.”
The second half was a different story. James, a 6-foot-6 junior, and Jared Jones, a 6-foot-9 Auburn-bound sophomore, were great on the glass. They helped reignite the high-powered offense.
Sexton got rolling and constantly attacked the basket. He found junior Drue Drinnon for a pair three-pointers in the fourth quarter that ultimately pushed the Falcons over the top.
Sexton finished with a game-high 34 points (8-21 FG, 0-8 from 3, 18-21 FT), seven rebounds and four assists.
“I felt like we just dug in at the end. We to preserver through it all. I think the crowd was great. Everybody showed loved. It was a great sold out crowd,” Sexton said. “We did what we had to do.”
They did indeed. And just like that, the game was over. Sexton made the plays in the clutch that the great ones make. When his game wasn’t working like it was just a game earlier (53 points, 11 made three-pointers), he won at the line and driving and kicking to shooters.
We all stood in the waning seconds of action to see if Wheeler could hit a game-typing three-pointer with less than 2.5 seconds left to play. The show came to an end as the shot hit back rim and the final buzzer sounded.
That’s how games like these are won. Pebblebrook held on for the 80-77 win. The game lived up to the hype.
I sat at the very top row and crammed in with people who just wanted to see the show.
The young family in front of me would feel the energy when someone got a clean break to the rim. Their four-year-old son would dance during the timeouts. The mother was curious about how many points Sexton scored in the second half.
The teenagers to my left were constantly sharing videos of the latest highlight to their Snapchat. The neighbor analyst to my right was always on point about the play that should of happened but didn’t. The retired couple that got there early to strategically grab a wall for their backs just enjoyed the show, regardless of who won or lost.
The gentleman who clearly left work and drove straight over to the middle of Cobb County sat down in the stairwell, loosened his bow tie and chummed it up with a new friend over the show we all were watching. You met your neighbor on this particular night and you enjoyed every minute of it.
The crowd filed out to their cars that were jammed in the lot and parked on any piece of land they could find.
Friends communed. Families went out for a late dinner. Basketball junkies told stories. And eventually we all went home.
This was such an Atlanta basketball night.
It felt so familiar.
And that’s good.