When Jerron Love’s jumper didn’t fall, the celebration for Hillgrove began.
Kyle Castlin scored 20 points to help the Hawks barely held off No. 7 Wheeler when Love’s shot at the buzzer hit the front of the rim, giving No. 5 Hillgrove a 56-54 win in the Class AAAAAA semifinals.
This will be Hillgrove’s first trip to the state finals. Wheeler failed in its bid for a sixth state title under coach Doug Lipscomb.
The Hawks (27-4) never trailed after a 15-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarters gave them a 47-39 lead, but it was certainly close, particularly when Wheeler scored 7 straight to make it 49-48 with 3:23 left.
But Hillgrove had just enough gas in the tank, hitting 5 of 8 free throws, including 1 of 2 from Keith Ray with 6.1 seconds left that set up Love’s final attempt.
On that play, the key for Hillgrove was to protect from a loss at all costs. No threes. No easy baskets.
“Just don’t give up a three,” Hillgrove coach Ed Morris said. “If they go and they score two, worst-case scenario is we go into overtime. Don’t let him make a three to win it. We were fortunate that he stepped up and took a two.”
The long jumper was on line but just short, and there wasn’t enough time for a second attempt for Wheeler (21-9).
Prior to that, Love had another chance to tie the game, standing at the line with 9.3 seconds remaining after being fouled going for a layup.
He missed the first and made the second, and the Wildcats were forced to foul.
The Hawks likely never would have been in that position if not for Castlin, who made three 3-pointers and scored 12 of his game-high 20 points in the second half.
A junior small forward, Castlin has emerged as a leader on a team that has only lost four games.
“What I love about him is, he doesn’t force the game; he doesn’t force shots,” Morris said, of Castlin. “He just lets the game come to him.”
His biggest stretch was during the key 15-2 run, when he scored 7 straight Hillgrove points to close the third quarter, sending the game into the fourth quarter tied 39-39.
Elijah Staley had a team-high 13 points for Wheeler. Jordan Sexton came off the bench to add 17 points for the Hawks.