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Milton (Georgia) and St. Mary's (Arizona) take an out-of-state approach to playoff readiness

Milton coach: “It’s all about February and March, if we’re fortunate, and just getting our kids prepped and trying to see if we can play the best."
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By Zach Shugan | Photos by Ed Turlington

MILTON, Ga. — Saturday marked the end of a chapter in the 2021-22 season for Milton.

After many flights across the country to take on the best of the best on some of the biggest stages, the Eagles returned home for one final game against an out-of-state opponent. 

Host Milton squared off against St. Mary’s, one of Arizona’s top teams, in the final game of the Longhorn Steakhouse Five-Star Classic. In the end, Georgia’s defending 7A state champions defeated Arizona’s defending 4A state champion 65-55 to put a bow on its national slate. 

“It’s all about February and March, if we’re fortunate, and just getting our kids prepped and trying to see if we can play the best,” Milton head coach Allen Whitehart said. “That’s no knock on Georgia. But it was fun traveling around and seeing other basketball and playing against really high-level teams.”

Milton and St. Mary’s were opponents over the weekend, but they were in the same boat. Both teams wanted to see new, tough competition as they prepare for upcoming postseason runs, or as coaches say, a playoff push.

St. Mary’s scheduled 10 of its 24 games this season against teams from outside Arizona, with Atlanta-area Milton being the final one.

“I think we’re getting to that point where we know what we have and know where we’re at,” St. Mary’s head coach Damin Lopez said. “Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start getting that final push.”

Milton traveled to four states throughout December and January to play in prestigious events featuring some of the fiercest competition in the country.

Of the Eagles’ 24 regular-season games, half were against out-of-state opponents, and four of those teams are ranked near the top of the national SBLive/Sports Illustrated Power 25.

“You develop some toughness (on those trips),” Whitehart said. “There’s back-to-backs and back-to-back-to-backs, and you might play a nationally ranked team one night and then another one the next night. It just builds the toughness and resiliency that it takes to win championships.”

The Eagles opened up their interstate foray with the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Florida, where they defeated No. 7 Calvary Christian (Florida) and gave No. 2 IMG Academy (Florida) one of its biggest scares this season in a 76-73 loss. 

Right after Christmas, they made their way to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for the Beach Ball Classic, an event they won a season ago. They made it to the championship game again but fell to Bishop O’Connell (Virginia).

The third trip for Milton was to Springfield, Missouri, for the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions. The Eagles finished third in the tournament, picking up wins over Nixa (Missouri) and Whitney Young (Illinois) but falling to the champion St. Paul VI (Virginia) by one point.

Senior point guard Bruce Thornton went viral for his buzzer-beater three to give Milton the win over Nixa in the opening round.

Immediately after wrapping up in Springfield, Missouri, the team hopped on a plane and went to Springfield, Massachusetts, the home of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Eagles visited the Hall, an experience Whitehart called a “bucket-list item," but they were there for business. More specifically, they were there for the Spalding Hoophall Classic.

Milton went up against No. 11 Camden (New Jersey) in a game televised nationally on ESPN. Thornton and the Eagles put up a good fight against Camden and DJ Wagner, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2023, in a 63-55 loss.

In their final battle with an out-of-state team, and the only one at home, the Eagles came out on top against Phoenix-based St. Mary’s.

“I think it’s got us ready for the playoff push,” Whitehart said. “We’re starting to shift gears and get ready for that push, and our kids are starting to lock in. They understand what that looks like.”

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