By Zach Shugan
MACON, Ga. — They say if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
After finishing 26-5 and coming up just short of a berth to the state championship game in 2020, the Milton boys basketball team immediately turned its attention to another run at a state title in 2021.
“We didn’t hide from it,” Milton head coach Allen Whitehart said. “We said ‘Next year is our year. We got to put in the work.'”
With a bulk of its roster returning and a trip to the Final Four under its belt, Milton was pegged as the No. 1-ranked team in Class 7A entering the 2020-21 season. Following a 2-2 start to the season, Eagles won 26 games in a row and completed their revenge tour by being crowned state champions.
No. 1 Milton (28-2) defeated No. 5 Berkmar, 52-47, Saturday night at the Macon Centreplex in the GHSA Class 7A state championship game, taking home the third state title in program history and first under Whitehart, who was hired prior to the 2017-18 season.
“We started the season No. 1 and we ended the season No. 1,” Whitehart said. “We ran the table, which is tough with a bullseye on your back. The fact they’re a young team like they are and were able to stay focused and not buy into the hype, it says a lot about them.”
Taking down Berkmar (25-6) took a gritty performance from Milton, which had far from its best performance in the state championship game. But when it mattered most, the Eagles were able to assert their dominance and take control to complete its run at a state title.
A crucial point came late in the third quarter, with the Patriots scoring to take a 41-34 lead on the Eagles. With the Patriots and their fans feeling the momentum on their side, the young but experienced Eagles managed to keep their focus and pull off an 18-6 run in the final 9:28 of the game.
“We didn’t play our best game tonight,” Whitehart said. “For us to stay mentally tough and focused after struggling offensively all night, I thought it was amazing our kids were able to stay the course and do what we’ve done all year.”
Sophomore Kanaan Carlyle, who finished with a game-high 15 points, was the go-to man down the stretch for the Eagles. The dynamic guard went 8-for-10 from the free throw line in the game’s final minute. He intentionally missed a free throw with .3 seconds remaining, letting the clock run out as he began walking toward Milton’s bench to celebrate.
The game was tightly contested most of the night before Berkmar took a seven-point lead late in the third quarter.
At the end of the first quarter, Milton and Berkmar were tied, 16-16. The Patriots were able to go up on the Eagles before halftime, taking a 29-27 lead into the intermission.
Berkmar had the upper hand for much of the third quarter before Milton eventually settled down, locked in defensively and mounted its state-title winning comeback.
“I can’t even describe [the feeling],” Whitehart said as he stood outside the arena following the game, preparing to board the team bus back to Milton.
The season might not be over just yet for Milton. There’s a chance the Eagles, ranked No. 7 in the country by MaxPreps, could be invited to Geico Nationals, a tournament in Fort Myers, Florida, where the best of the best compete for the title of national champions.
“There’s been conversation, but we had to be focused on tonight,” Whitehart said. “It was about Berkmar. Our kids are pretty good about staying focused, and I thought tonight and throughout the week we prepped the right way like a veteran team. We came into tonight focused on Berkmar and Berkmar only.”
As for the future of the program, there’s reason to believe Milton could return to the state championship next season. Only one player (Broc Bidwell) in the Eagles’ main rotation of players was a senior. Carlyle and L.T. Overton will be back as a juniors, and Ohio State commit Bruce Thornton and four-star forward Kendall Campell will be seniors.
But Whitehart and company know what it takes not only to reach the state championship game but to come out on top. After winning it all and reaching the top of the mountain, they’re going to take some time to soak in the view.
“It’s such a hard struggle to even get to this point. I think for my kids and for me and my staff, we’re just going to exhale, enjoy what we’ve accomplished and reflect a little bit.”