Several hours after his last game ever as a varsity head Coach, and after the team bus had returned from Hogansville, Carter Wilson gathered his team together inside the home locker at the Decatur High School Performing Arts Center and Gymnasium, a building that he, in no small part, is responsible for getting built.We first met Wilson 29 years ago as Bob Reinhart's fuzzy-cheek assistant. But we've really gotten to know him better the last three years, as we've been privileged to talk with him on a regular basis, while observing his first-rate teaching both up close and from afar. On Wednesday night, after a very tough 55-45 loss to a very good Callaway team, he gave what was surely the most moving speech of his career."This is not the way we wanted it to end," he told his players. "Yet to me you are, and always will be, champions. We did not get the final championship we wanted, and because of that, this is going to hurt for a few days. But never forget what you did. You practiced six and sometimes seven days a week since October. You wind up, in this historic season, in the first season of this new gym, going 22-6, and primarily because of you we've had the best fan support Decatur's ever seen in recent times. For that, and many other reasons, beginning tonight, tomorrow, and from here on, you must hold your heads up like the champions you are. I for one am very proud to be going out with the class of 2010."Perhaps, of course, the best words are born of pain. And make no mistake the Callaway loss was painful on many levels. From our personal aesthetic view, it was painful that Wilson had to coach his final game in such a junky, haphazard venue as the Callaway gym: no P.A., a half-functioning scoreboard, and gory, tar-like splotches dotting the bleachers. This was no place for an important state playoff game to be staged, much less the curtain closer to an outstanding coaching career.But the truth is, whether the game was played in Callaway, Decatur or Timbuktu, the best team won on this night. First-year coach Greg Moultrie burned the midnight oil doing his homework, and there are three examples that come immediately to mind:*He played a box-and-one most of the night, with one man guarding leading scorer Trumon Jefferson, while the other four played an accordion-like 2-2 zone, always ready to collapse on 6-6 Nic Wilson. For Decatur this was nothing new, having seen this configuration previously, three times from Blessed Trinity and once from Lovett.
"I can't remember a season where I've seen so many so-called 'junk defenses'," Carter Wilson said. "I say 'so-called' because they were anything but junk against us. Every time we faced one of those defenses, it was tough for us to score."Moultrie's game plan worked to perfection. Nic was held to 11 points, while Trumon had 12 on just three field goals. "The box and one is hard," Trumon said later, on the bus ride home. "And the guys they put on me were tough. But I can do better, I can work harder to get open, to find my spaces. That's what you have to do in a box-and-one, you have to work harder to get open away from the ball, and I didn't do that tonight."*Contrary to reputation, Callaway didn't play an unfettered full-court offense. Matter of fact there were plenty of times the home team ran half-court sets and even took their time doing so."When we got the lead in the fourth quarter," Moultrie said laughing, "I decided to do that Decatur thing. Listen, I know about Coach Wilson. He's been successful for a reason. I told our guys to slow down, run the clock and no shots unless you're in the paint."The result was that 6-2 senior post Chris Laye had one of his biggest nights of the season, scoring 24 points, most of those (with two major exceptions) coming right around the basket.*Again, contrary to reputation, Callaway did not press for 32 minutes. In fact, for only the second time this season, it didn't press at all."I didn't think a press would bother Coach Wilson much," Moultrie said. "Besides, I figured they'd been working against [the press] all week in practice, so I decided to show 'em something different by not using it. It's kind of like, you show the left, but hit 'em with the right."What he left unsaid is that it's nearly impossible playing an effective box-and-one when you press. On this night Moultrie determined that a sound, half-court defense was his ticket, a decision Carter Wilson definitely appreciated."Moultrie's gonna be a good one," he said. "Well, he already is a good one. I told him after the game to make sure he appreciates these moments. I told him to even keep a record or diary of it, because it's all so fleeting."Wednesday's game certainly opened at a fast pace, with four lead changes alone in the first quarter, which appropriately ended at a 17-17 deadlock. But when Moultrie switched to box-and-one (after opening first in a 2-3 zone and then, briefly, a straight man-to-man) he changed both the tempo and tenor of this game.After Decatur point Shaq Baker hit a three pointer with 1:16 left in the first (Decatur's only three all night) Decatur led 17-15, but wouldn't score again for nearly seven minutes. For Decatur, during this stretch, the box-and-one proved an unsolvable riddle, as Trumon barely saw any touches. "On our team we have what we call a 'three-stop rule,'" Moultrie said. "In other words, every run starts with at least three consecutive defensive stops. And that's what we got in that second quarter. Actually, many more than three. It turned the game around."Callaway scored 10 points during that seven-minute span to take a 25-17 lead, and eventually led 27-20 at halftime. At this point more Decatur fans arrived, adding to the already impressive corps making the 90-minute drive to Hogansville.Many had to wonder if they'd entered the twilight zone. The clock behind one basket had, eerily, no hands, something that's considered very bad karma on at least five continents. Also, several people (including our own daughter) told us how, once they hit the Callaway campus, their cell phones made an enigmatic leap one hour backwards, thus displaying Central Time, which is definitely considered bad karma on every spot of the globe except possibly Alabama.But none of this compared to the halftime show. There was no band, no cheerleaders, no dancing team, no politicians, no fried chicken, but simply a parade of young men marching on the court to launch one mid-court shot after another. Believe me when we report here, balls were flying everyplace, slamming off every available surface including that clock with no hands.
It looked like some bizarre Druid ritual. But in the end, all the half-court shots proved prophetic.Decatur responded to its reinvigorated fan support and quickly erased the seven-point deficit. When Dujon Parker followed in a missed rebound, Decatur lead 30-29 with 3:50 left in the third. For the next two minutes the game tugged back and forth with unbearable tension, but then came single most decisive sequence of this night.With 1:20 left in the third, Decatur trailed 34-32 and was in-bounding under its own basket. The official handed the ball to Trumon, who promptly found Nic open for an easy lay-in to tie the game. Except, another official was conversing at the scorer's table (site for the non-existing P.A.), and this official ruled, we think, that the clock hadn't started therefore voiding the play. Much like the conclusion to the 1972 Russia-USA Olympic basketball championship, the play was re-played, and as for the US that year (where there were actually several replays), it proved a disaster. This time Decatur turned it over, Callaway's Laye hit a short turnaround jumper and with 1:14 left the home team had a 36-32 lead.
Late in the quarter, Dujon scored inside again, making it 36-34, and with time expiring Callaway raced down floor. Back in the first quarter Laye had made a long, awkward-looking two-handed three-pointer - that sort of looked like a bench press - the kind of shot that actually goes in on alternating Wednesdays. But here, with time expiring in the third, he outdid himself. As the buzzer sounded he jumped off one leg and launched a parabola from mid-court - reminiscent, of course, the halftime show - except this one was a perfect swish. End of three, Callaway now led 39-34.
"A devastating shot," said Carter Wilson. "A dagger. It took all the momentum we earned in the whole third quarter and gave it back to them on one shot. Emotionally it was devastating, but it also changed the game strategically. At that point there's a big difference between [trailing by] two and five points."It was big because creating scores proved extremely difficult for Decatur, managing only 11 fourth-quarter points. About midway through, Wilson went to the fouling game which seemed precisely the right thing to do. Callaway only made 5 of 13 free throws all night, for 38 percent, and seemed perfectly vulnerable to this strategy. But the key to the fouling game, if your opposition makes only one foul shot, you've got to respond by hitting a field goal, thus trading one for two. Alas, Decatur couldn't pull this off. "You work your fouls in conjunction with your timeouts," Wilson said. "But you have to make shots, and we had trouble even getting shots. I'd have to check the film, but I think when we fouled at seven (the seventh team foul), eight and nine, we wound up making turnovers after [Callaway shot its] foul shots."Instead of closing the gap, Callaway widened matters, and the final score proved its largest margin.Callaway is now 20-7 and will advance to play an Elite Eight game against Jefferson (which beat Westminster 58-56 on Wednesday; Blessed Trinity was also eliminated, 66-57, by Spencer) Friday night in Dalton. Decatur, as mentioned, finishes at 22-6, and Wilson closes his head coaching career, which includes stints at Decatur, Tucker High, and Georgia State, with 352 wins total.
"I'll tell you something funny," he said late Wednesday, when he was finally alone in The Spike's home locker. "I've been through nights like this, elimination night, as a player, an assistant and a head coach, and it never gets any easier. I'm 56 years old, and it's just as hard now as it was 30 years ago. I ache quite a bit right now, but believe me, I ache more for those guys than I do myself. From day one of practice, they knew the last game of this season would also be my last game, and I could tell, from the beginning, they were playing for more than just themselves. That is something I will never forget."
"I think the most important thing about this season," he added, "is that we put Decatur basketball back on the map. Don't get me wrong, we've always had a great program, good players, and good fan support. But this season we stepped it up big time. Just look at that crowd that came out here Friday (against Chattooga]. That was unbelievable, something to remember, but also something to build on."