RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK Stepping on the basketball court – even for a second consecutive N.C. 3A girls’ final – is the easy part for reigning state champion Harding.
Last season, the Rams rallied the school community after a tumultuous period during which the school faced the prospect of closing.
Surviving that challenge, relatively speaking, could be seen as the easy part.
“With pain, there’s growth,” Harding coach Anthony Jones said. “We’ve been through a lot of pain this year, but there’s also been a lot of growth.”
The Rams dropped four of their first nine games but have won 18 straight. The streak was buoyed by the return of Abrea Harris – last year’s state final most valuable player. Harris moved to Virginia to live with her father but returned to her ailing mother, who died during December.
Jones said Harris’ midseason return was not a given, as she wondered if basketball was the right thing for her amid her personal tragedy. Then, there was a legacy to extend.
“Her mother always enjoyed her playing basketball,” Jones said. “She’s on another level altogether.”
Harris’ 21 points and 11 rebounds helped the Rams overcome an 11-point deficit in Saturday’s 51-50 Western Regional final win against Waynesville Tuscola. Harris, named regional MVP, has committed to Alabama-Birmingham.
Favorite? “We’re not:” Olympic boys’ coach Ty Baumgardner spent the better part of Monday’s news conference talking about anything and everything, except the historic perspective of the Trojans’ first 4A state final appearance – Saturday vs. Raleigh Broughton at North Carolina’s Smith Center.
As for Olympic (29-0) being a heavy favorite … “Oh my gosh,” Baumgardner said. “I don’t know who is saying that we’re an overwhelming favorite. We’re not.”
He went on to rattle off names of Capitals players, including 6-foot-1 point guard Devonte Graham, headed to Appalachian State, and 6-6 wing James Hemphill, bound for the U.S. Naval Academy. Broughton’s sixth man is 6-2 junior, left-handed sharpshooter Cameron Gottfried, son of N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried.
Déjà vu? Maybe not: The Cuthbertson boys defeated Kinston 50-47 on Dec. 28 in a rematch of last season’s 2A state final that was won 58-55 by Kinston. Cavaliers coach Mike Helms will take a repeat of this season’s outcome in the 2A final.
Cuthbertson trailed 47-36 entering the fourth quarter, then held Kinston scoreless.
“We don’t want to be in a position where we have to do that, again. Because I don’t like our chances,” Helms said.
Looking at Kinston – with a four-year varsity point guard and Eastern Regional MVP in Josh Dawson, and Brandon Ingram, a 6-7 sophomore who has a scholarship offer from N.C. State – Helms is convinced of the Vikings’ “Keyes” to success.
Denzel Keyes – a 6-5 wing who has signed to play basketball and football at NC A&T – Helms said, presents the biggest matchup problem. Keyes scored 17 points in last year’s state final, and 16 in this season’s first meeting.
“He touches the game in so many ways,” Helms said. “He can go inside. He can go outside, shoot the 3. He rebounds the ball so well. He runs the floor like a deer.”
The Cavaliers led the 2012 state final 48-42 after three quarters. Junior Shelton Mitchell, a 6-3 Wake Forest recruit, scored a game-high 22 points.
Not falling for it: Statesville boys’ coach Sonny Schofield has no one to match up with Oxford Webb’s Isaiah Hicks, a 6-9 North Carolina signee and McDonald’s All-American.
“I’m just going to talk about stopping them, not him,” Schofield said of the 3A boys’ final in Raleigh.
“My tallest man is 6-2. They get in there, they compete, they battle with 6-9. Until (Hicks) really proves how good he is, we ain’t gonna fall for it.”