Harding High boys’ basketball coach Walt Aikens said he can’t wait to get to school this week.
To use his word, it’s going to “bananas.”
Harding’s boys and girls are going to the N.C. 3A Western Regionals. The girls, who won a state championship last season, play Thursday at UNC-Greensboro. The boys, who have never been this far, play Wednesday at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“It’s an exciting time,” Aikens said after his team upset Concord on Friday, “not just for our coaching staffs, but also for the kids. A lot of these kids have been with us for four years. On my team, I remember they came in and said, ‘Coach, we’ll be the ones to get you that state title.’ They’re on the way there. But I told them (Friday), ‘No matter what happens, y’all made me proud tonight.’”
While the Rams girls have been rolling – Friday’s 48-32 win against Carson was their 16th straight – the boys have taken a tougher road to the regionals.
Despite returning four starters from a strong team in 2011-12, Harding lost three of its first six games this season. Then to start February, the Rams lost three in a row, including a 29-point loss to Garinger.
Harding entered the playoffs with a 13-10 record.
But Aikens never wavered in his belief that this team could make a playoff run. Harding is a 3A team but plays a predominantly 4A schedule. Harding has played West Charlotte, which has been nationally ranked, and nationally ranked Olympic to a pair of close games, for example. Olympic needed a buzzer-beater to beat Harding by one point at home Jan. 11.
“I knew this is what we could do,” Aikens said. “I think the guys expected to do so much better this year because of what we returned. We lost (20-point scorer) Jarvis (Haywood), but we had so many shooters, I thought we could pick it up.”
Aikens said he knew he could expect consistent performance from forwards Emmanuel Patton and Steven Burrough and point guard Aaron Linton. So he asked his shooters – Darryl White, Teyon Henry, George Paul and Rashaad Richardson – to make up the points Haywood used to get.
“It didn’t happen early,” Aikens said, “but the guys are really learning to win together, and despite all the turmoil and the young guys mixing with the veterans, we knew as coaches we were much better than our record showed. So we weren’t worried about it. We knew once we got to the playoffs our strength of schedule would have us ready for any team.”
What’s happened is the shooters have started coming through, and Linton, a 5-foot-3 point guard, has played well. He had 18 points, seven assists, six steals and five rebounds in a 71-65 upset of Sweet 16 No. 7 Concord. Aikens said Linton is averaging nearly a triple-double in the postseason.
With Linton leading the way, Harding has beaten Anson Senior, Southern Carolina co-champion Marvin Ridge and state power Concord – all in one week – for its first regional berth.
It just makes it sweeter the powerhouse girls’ team is going, too.
“We need something like this at our school,” Aikens said. “We need something to lift up the morale in sports and our student body. We haven’t had a big following. Hopefully we can get it now.”
Wertz: 704-628-1723; twitter: @langstonwertzjr