LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) - Savannah Wheeler has what her parents call “Savannah moments.”
Like when she was a third-grader and tagged along with older sister Taylor to a basketball camp at Transylvania. Savannah liked that she got to play in a game, but what she really, really liked was the camp’s soft-serve ice cream.
“The next year when they went back to camp the ice-cream machine was broken. Savannah didn’t want to go back to Transy again,” her dad Dave said with a laugh.
Or like when she was a sixth-grader and dressed out for Boyd County’s varsity, and coach Pete Fraley looked down the bench to put her into a game one night. Savannah was nowhere to be found. “She got hungry and went to the concession stand to get a candy bar,” her dad explained.
“That’s Savannah,” her mom Tracy added. “She just kinda does her thing; she’s just a special kid, she really is.”
It may take a few days, but the Wheeler family will be remembering all those fun “moments” again, once they get over the abrupt ending to Boyd County’s season in the first round of the State Tournament last week. The Lady Lions fell to Male 74-56 in the opening round of the KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena.
Wheeler, who was named Miss Basketball last week, was the focus of Male’s swarming defense.
The 5-foot-6 senior point guard, who came into the tournament averaging almost 30 points, had 28, but Male harrassed her into missing 22 of 28 shots. She did make all 14 of her free throws.
With the reality setting in that her high school career was over, Wheeler broke into tears with 43 seconds left, then walked slowly to the Boyd County bench where her coaches and teammates tried to console her.
The Lady Lions’ loss can’t dim the shine of Wheeler’s high school career.
She helped Boyd County to three consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances, including a spot in the final four last year. In five state tournament games, Wheeler totaled 115 points and 27 rebounds.
She finished her career as the sixth-highest scorer in girls’ state history with 3,621 points.
Wheeler meant a lot to the Lady Lions’ program by the example she set.
“She’s paved the way,” Fraley said. “She’s the second Miss Basketball from the 16th Region (West Carter’s Megen Gearhart won the award in 2003.) We have other kids in our program now who it’s not just a dream for them. They can see (by) the hard work she put it, you can achieve it.”
Savannah grew up a basketball junkie. She accompanied her dad to games when he was a referee. She shot free throws on her driveway hoop in the morning before the school bus arrived. She played in boys’ tournaments when she was a fourth- and fifth-grader.
“She always had a basketball in her hand,” her dad said. “You know how Kentucky kids are. They really like their basketball.
“She took small steps, and she learned to compete at a young age,” her dad said. “That’s half the battle – competing.”
Savannah started playing AAU ball for the West Virginia Thunder when she was in the sixth grade.
As a seventh-grader, she watched her sister break the program’s decades-old scoring record.
As an eighth-grader she watched Logan Fraley, the coach’s daughter, eclipse Taylor’s scoring mark.
Then Savannah came along and blew by both of them with her dazzling scoring skills.
She served notice early this season that she was a strong candidate for Miss Basketball by leading Boyd County to the Lexington Catholic Traditional Bank Holiday Classic title.
The quarterfinals and semifinals were both held on a Saturday, and Savannah poured in 40 points against Ryle and 42 against defending state champion Mercer County.
That’s 82 points, including 30 of 35 free throws, in one day!
“We were there watching,” her mom said, “and she was so relaxed, and it seemed the whole team was just jelling. That was a big day.”
Savannah added 29 points in the finals against Highlands, and Boyd County stamped itself a contender to three-peat in the 16th Region.
That three-peat happened, and in between the Lady Lions’ region title and their trip to Rupp Arena, Wheeler received the Miss Basketball award. More than 20 members of her extended family were on hand to see her honored.
“She always had a lot of support,” her dad said. “She’s had a lot of really good teammates, and she’s had a lot of family behind her.
“Winning Miss Basketball was big, but she’s always kept things in perspective. She came home that night, put the trophy in the dining room and never mentioned it again.”
“It was on to the next thing,” her mom said.
That next thing was the Sweet Sixteen.
Wheeler and her teammates had hoped to make a run to Sunday’s championship game, but Male proved to be the better team Thursday afternoon.
Despite the disappointment, Wheeler was able to appreciate all she and her teammates accomplished the last few seasons.
“We made history last year by making it to the final four,” she said. “That was very special.
“And all the hard work I put into this since I was little paid off. Just being a leader, and wanting to be a good role model to the young ones.”
Tracy Wheeler said win or lose, the trip to Lexington this week was going to be bittersweet because her daughter’s Boyd County career was coming to a close.
“We were driving down here and talking about how she started her career at Transylvania when she was in the third grade, and I said it was ironic that it was going to end here at Rupp, just a few blocks away from Transylvania.”
Savannah, who has signed to play college ball at Marshall (just across the river from Ashland), said the Lady Lions talked all season about getting back to the Sweet Sixteen and being part of the first girls’ state tournament in Rupp Arena.
“I wouldn’t have wanted my career to end any other way but at Rupp,” she said.
It was an achievement — another “Savannah moment” — that she and her family will always cherish.
MIKE FIELDS writes for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org