By Zach Shugan
MILTON, Ga. — Following four straight double-digit wins to open up the new year, the No. 1-ranked Milton boys basketball team is set to take on No. 5 Cherokee in a high-stakes game Tuesday night.
The winner will take over first place in Region 5-7A with two weeks left in the regular season. Adding to the suspense, the region decided not to play its postseason tournament this year due to the pandemic. The four teams with the best record in region play will make the 7A state tournament, which begins Feb. 23, with the top team earning a one seed and guaranteed home-court advantage through the first two rounds.
Milton (16-2, 6-0) is coming off a week in which it defeated Woodstock by 30 points and Alpharetta by 45 points. The top-ranked team in Class 7A has won 14 games in a row after starting the season 2-2. The Eagles have also won 24 region games in a row dating back to Dec. 2018.
“We’re just trying to get better,” Milton head coach Allen Whitehart said following the Eagles’ most-recent win Jan. 22 over Alpharetta. “We’re starting to really fine tune things we’re not good at, which is more than you would imagine. So we’re trying to capitalize and build on those things.”
The Eagles’ two losses this season came early on against No. 4 McEachern and the No. 1 team in Class 3A, Sandy Creek. They have wins over Class 7A’s No. 2 Grayson and No. 6 Berkmar and A-Private’s No. 7 Greenforest.
Following Milton’s dominant win over crosstown rival Alpharetta, Whitehart kept the focus on what comes next for his team.
“We don’t look in the rear view,” he said. “It’s the next person in front of us, which is Cherokee. They’re a very good basketball team. Our work is cut out for us. We’ll celebrate for about five minutes, and then our full focus is on what’s ahead.”
Cherokee (16-3, 5-0) features two highly-touted seniors in Elijah Tucker, a three-star forward signed to Xavier University, and Taihland Owens, a three-star guard with offers from Georgia Tech, VCU and Appalachian State.
The Warriors will go up against Milton, whose starting five features four players who very likely will play Division I college basketball and one player who is the top-rated football recruit in the country for the Class of 2023.
Junior Bruce Thornton, a five-star guard ranked 12th overall in the country for the Class of 2022, committed to Ohio State in November. As if one five-star guard isn’t enough, sophomore Kanaan Carlyle is ranked 11th overall in the coutnry for the Class of 2023.
Senior Broc Bidwell, a sharpshooting guard who plays big for his size, signed to play at Campbell University. Junior Kendall Campbell, who can play like an old-fashioned big man with his back to the basket or step outside and drain shots from long range, holds offers from Alabama, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and over half a dozen other college programs.
At center, L.T. Overton, a top-rated football recruit who is liable to post a double-double in points and rebounds any given night, holds it down in the paint for the Eagles.
And that’s just their starting five. The Eagles’ bench also boasts several high-quality players.
Milton has a chance against the No. 5 Warriors to make a statement to the rest of the state and take control in its region with only a few region games remaining.
A loss would put the Eagles in second place in the region but wouldn’t eliminate them from contention for first place and a number-one seed in the state playoffs. Milton and Cherokee play a rematch in Canton the final week of the regular season.