After back-to-back N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A sectional championships, the Ardrey Kell boys' basketball team lost five seniors from last year's team, including two top players, Justin Cheek and Cameron McQueen.
This year, senior Andrew Alexander has stepped up for the struggling Knights (12-12), helping them secure a spot in the state playoffs and a fourth-place finish in the competitive Southwestern 4A conference.
"Last year he was more of a role player for us," said Ardrey Kell coach Mike Craft, who has coached the Knights since the school opened five years ago. "This year he's been the go-to guy, and he's embraced that."
Alexander said his teammates have also helped overcome the loss of the seniors.
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"It's big shoes to fill, and I think our team has done a great job of filling in the holes," he said.
At 6-foot-3 and switching between the wing and post position, Alexander, 18, can cause matchup problems for opposing defenses. He has a good long-range jump shot and can use his speed to drive but also has the ability to post up and score in the paint.
Craft said that, as the Knights top scoring option, other teams have focused defenses on Alexander, but that hasn't stopped him from averaging a team-high 13.9 points per game.
"He's been a big help for us," said Craft. "When he gets hot, we're a much better team."
The Knights got out to a quick 4-1 start this season but then struggled, losing four in a row and two of three in their holiday tournament at Cox Mill in Concord.
"We lost confidence," said Craft. "It took us a while to get that confidence back."
It also took the team a while to come together. Alexander and four other Knights - seniors Drew Owens, Justus Pickett and David Jackson and junior Nick Davidson - also play on the football team. Pickett, who recently signed to play football at Maryland next year, missed several games because of recruiting trips.
"It takes football players a while to get in basketball shape, and they really hit their stride in January," said Craft.
"It was a rough couple of weeks getting into basketball shape," said Alexander, who played quarterback for the Knights but said he doesn't have a "main" sport.
"I claim them both," he said.
Alexander has had several offers to play basketball and football at Division III schools and has an offer to play Division II football at Johnson C. Smith. He's not sure what he's going to do next year, but he plans on picking one sport. Alexander wants to go into medicine like his brother, Chris, who is a first-year medical student at UNC Chapel Hill.
The Knights had conference wins against Providence, Rocky River and Myers Park in January and East Mecklenburg and Rocky River this month, giving them a conference record of 7-7.
But their record could easily be very different: They lost by three points to Myers Park on Dec. 17, three to East Meck on Jan. 7, two to Independence on Jan. 25 and three points to first-place Butler on Feb. 1. Alexander had a shot at a three-pointer to tie Butler in that game but missed. Friday, they lost to rival Providence 40-36.
"We were competitive in all those games," said Alexander.
With a three-game win streak heading into the conference tournament, Alexander said he is happy with where the team is. He's getting help from senior point guard T.J Cox, who distributes the ball well, and senior forward Jamel Hunt, who is in his first year playing for the Knights but grabbed 17 rebounds in a game against Butler, 20 against East Meck and 19 against Rocky River.
Owens, who signed to play football at South Carolina next year, provides a lot of size in the post for the Knights.
"When (Owens) plays well, we do," said Craft.
Alexander hopes the team will continue to play well as it enters the playoffs.
"I'm really proud of the team," he said. "I think we can do great things in the playoffs."