In his third season at the helm, beyondthehardwood.com co-author Matt Kramer led his Milton Eagles to the Georgia 6A Final Four with a 94-83 win over Campbell on Friday, February 26th at the University of West Georgia. Milton was led in scoring in the round of eight by junior shooting guard Alex O’Connell. A 6’6″ high major recruit, O’Connell punctuated the evening with a reverse dunk in the closing seconds, punching Milton’s ticket to the Final Four, Kramer’s first as a head coach. However, it was not the Campbell game that will go down as the most memorable on Milton’s playoff run.
Six days before the win over Campbell, Milton traveled four hours from Atlanta to the southernmost part of Georgia for a “Sweet 16″ match-up with 27-0 Tift County, in a gym where Tift had not lost a game in over three years. Known to be a blue-collar program that sends kids to play Division I college basketball, Tift, led by sensational senior guard Tyrie Jackson, led by eight points at the half and by 9 with less than five minutes to go in the fourth before Coach Kramer’s Eagles dug in and showed a whole lot of blue-collar grit of their own.
Down nine points with 4:48 to go in the game, Alex O’Connell intercepted a pass near the top of the key and drove the length of the floor for a two-handed slam that ignited Milton’s season-defining rally. At the defensive end, 6’9″ Harvard-bound Chris Lewis and 6’8″ University of North Carolina-Greensboro-bound Kyrin Galloway, Milton’s bookend rim-protecting senior twin towers, contested and blocked one Tift foray to the basket after another down the stretch, jump-starting the Eagles fast break, while on the offensive end it was a mixture of Lewis on the inside and senior wing Charlie Newell giving O’Connell help on the perimeter.
Trailing by four with less than two minutes to go, the Eagles turned in a key sequence that started with Galloway going high in the air to block a Tyrie Jackson shot off the backboard, leading to the senior Newell hitting the second of his two huge three-point goals from deep in the right corner to cut the Tift lead to one–the closest Milton had been able to get since midway through the first quarter. Newell’s shot was followed by a Tift player missing the front end of a one-and-one, which led to Alex O’Connell giving Milton it’s first lead since it led 7-6 in the first quarter on a floater in the paint with 37 seconds to play. However, Tift did not get to be 27-0 in the state of Georgia by caving to pressure, a point driven home when Tyrie Jackson was fouled on his way to the hoop and made two free throws to re-establish a one point Tift lead with 24 seconds to play, setting up the dramatic finish.
With no timeouts remaining, Milton’s sophomore PG Justin Brown quickly advanced the ball against token Tift pressure and got the Eagles into the set called during Jackson’s free throws. Brown crossed half court and passed the ball to Newell curling from the left to right wing and after a brief look into Lewis, who was surrounded by three defenders in the post, Newell reversed the ball to Galloway at the top of the key. Galloway, who had hit a key three during the late run, looked at the basket for a count then checked a surrounded Lewis inside before passing the ball back to Brown who had made his way across the baseline to left the corner. With twelve seconds left, Brown looked inside and attempted to get the ball to Lewis on the left block, but the defender reached around Milton’s first option and poked the ball with the help of Lewis back to Brown. With seven seconds left, Brown, a left-handed guard, dribbled up out of the corner with his right hand, locking in on Lewis, and appeared to want to deliver the ball back inside to the big fella. However, he realized that Tift had continued to surround Lewis with three guys, making an entry pass impossible; so, with three seconds to go, the ball and the season was in the hands of a sophomore guard.
Brown may be young, and he may not be the first player people think about when they think of this Milton team, but he is a high level player on the rise and he does not lack confidence. Nicknamed “The Louisville Lip,” a Muhammad Ali reference bestowed upon him by assistant coach Sean Revels, referring to his Ali-like ability to run his mouth at the opponent in the heat of the battle, Brown, closely guarded, took a dribble inside the key and stepped back in an attempt to create enough space to get the shot off before the buzzer sounded. Soon after the high-arcing shot narrowly cleared the fingertips of the taller Tift defender, it made a clear path right to its target, grazed the inside front of the iron and nestled softly in the net, sending the Milton bench into a frenzied celebration on the court in front of its bench as an estimated 3,500 Tift fans fell deathly silent. Milton 54, Tift 52: Eagles on to the Elite 8, where, as detailed, they would defeat Campbell.
In the end, Milton would fall to Pebblebrooke in the Georgia 6A Final Four by a score of 77-70, but the memorable win over Tift, the 25 wins, the first-round 96-70 playoff blowout of Central Gwinnet and the Elite Eight victory over Campbell had Coach Kramer talking with great pride about a successful season he believed had shown that Milton’s basketball program had established a championship culture. “We have had some terrific players here at Milton in my three seasons and we have won many games, but this was the first time we have had the togetherness, the toughness, and the investment in one another to go out and beat the teams we beat on this run to the Final Four. That speaks to the championship culture we have worked so hard as a program to develop here over the past three seasons. Winning games is one thing; it takes a championship culture to do what we did here in February. I’m proud of these guys and the guys who came before them here in these past three years who helped develop what we have now established and what we now call The Milton Way. It was a great run that none of us will ever forget, and I am certain we are in a position to build on it and make another run next year and in the years to come.”
With Alex O’Connell and sensational junior point guard Kendrick Summerour returning to headline a talented core of players, “The Milton Way” is certain to remain in the conversation with the elite basketball programs in the state of Georgia.