West Charlotte High All-America center Kennedy Meeks said one of the best things that ever happened to his team - and to him - was losing to Lake Norman at home a few weeks ago. Lake Norman came into Tuesday's game in seventh place in an eight-team I-Meck 4A conference.
West Charlotte won the N.C. 4A state title last season and lost just two of 30 games. This year has been different. Before the Lake Norman game, the Lions already had suffered home losses to Harding and Mooresville, and the Lions' home gym had always been one of the toughest places to play in North Carolina.
This year, even at home, even with Meeks back for his junior season, West Charlotte was good one day and not so good the next.
Meeks said the Lake Norman game "woke us up."
"It kind of helped," Meeks said. "We know if we don't play now, it'll happen every time. I feel like we're ready to play now."
Tuesday night, the Lions looked ready to make a run for their first repeat state championship since winning back-to-back in 1991 and '92. West Charlotte, No. 4 in the Sweet 16, beat No. 2 North Mecklenburg 70-64. The win ended the Vikings' eight-game win streak. Meeks dominated inside, getting 10 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
The win put the Lions (15-5, 7-2) into a first-place tie with North Mecklenburg (16-3, 7-2) and Mallard Creek (12-4, 7-2). West Charlotte has now beaten North Mecklenburg twice and has beaten Mallard Creek once. The Lions play Mallard Creek at home Feb. 7. The conference title is theirs for the taking.
"I can't say what the problem was before," Meeks said. "Stuff just wasn't working. We talked about it amongst ourselves and we knew what we needed to do differently and what we needed to improve on."
Last season, Meeks polished off a superior sophomore season by being named MVP of the state finals. West Charlotte beat Raleigh Millbrook 78-69 and Meeks had 12 points, two blocked shots and 19 rebounds, the fourth-most in championship history.
After that performance, Meeks' recruiting profile grew. The 6-foot-9, 275-pound junior took unofficial visits to North Carolina and Georgetown and got offers from schools like Charlotte, Florida, N.C. State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech. Today, ESPN ranks Meeks as the No. 28 player in the junior class nationally and No. 3 among centers. Meeks said he has more than 20 Division I college offers.
"The schools recruiting me most right now are (North) Carolina, Georgetown and Louisville and Florida," Meeks said. "Right now, I'm wide open. As long as I'm playing, I'm cool with it."
With about a season and a half left in his high school career, ESPN national recruiting analyst Dave Telep said Meeks hasn't begun to reach his talent ceiling.
"He has a chance to be an elite center," Telep said. "It's got to start with a commitment to conditioning. I think he can do more. I have very high expectations for him, and you don't want being the state championship MVP as a sophomore to be your highest point. He has great hands, great feet. To me, he's an ACC starting center but he has to attack every single game with the same energy and focus to make that happen."
This season, Meeks has been bothered by growing pains in his knees that has limited his conditioning and jumping ability. He said that's beginning to clear up. He said he has a renewed focus right now. Just like his team.
Friday night, West Charlotte has a big game at Mooresville, a team that beat the Lions earlier this season. And Meeks knows that West Charlotte must find the consistency it didn't have before.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy this year," he said. "We knew every team would prepare for us. We had to adjust. Now we've adjusted and we're on a roll now. We all realize it's time to step it up now. We haven't played to our full potential, so we have to play now."