The Hopewell Titans look destined to complete their second undefeated regular season in a row after a 66-63 win over Lake Norman, ranked No. 2 in the sweet 16.
In one of the state's toughest conferences, the Titans have risen to the stop and are favorites to win the state tournament this year. But it hasn't been easy.
The No. 1 Titans have fought through many close games, but have the ability to put away opponents at the end.
They did just that in front of a packed gymnasium at Hopewell High School on Wednesday.
Never miss a local story.
Every time it seemed as if the Titans delivered a knockout punch, the Wildcats punched back, right up until a game-tying 3-point try by Matt Eller with one second left bounded off the rim, securing the Hopewell victory.
"If we're No. 1, they're 1B, for sure," said Hopewell coach Eric Davis, whose team improved to 19-0 this season and 47-1 over the past two seasons. "Both games against them could have gone either way."
On Wednesday, the game's biggest plays came at the foul line, when the Titans snared offensive rebounds off their own missed foul shots three times in the game's final three minutes and turned them into big points.
Hopewell had leads of 58-56, 60-58, 62-60 and 64-63 - after a 3-pointer by Eller with 13.5 seconds remaining. When the Titans scored, the Wildcats typically answered, especially Eller who had a game-high 22 points for Lake Norman.
In the end, it was Hopewell point guard Earl McLaurin (11 points) and Downing (16 points) each swishing a pair of foul shots in the game's last 23 seconds, that gave the Titans just enough cushion to pull out the win.
"We're 0-2 against them," said Lake Norman coach Brandon Jolly, whose team is 15-2 this year and 40-4 over the past two seasons. "They're really, really good. They didn't make any mistakes down the stretch. You have to play almost perfect to beat them."
Brooks and Larsen battled essentially to a standoff, with Brooks finishing with 11 points and 10 rebounds while Larsen had eight points and 10 rebounds.
Lake Norman got 19 points from senior swingman Reggie Price, while junior Michael Russell and senior Justin Avery combined for 15 points.
The overall play of Downing might have served as the difference on Wednesday, with the senior, headed to Davidson next year, not only scoring 16 points but turning in a lockdown defensive effort against Canevari, holding the Lake Norman senior to four points, 17 fewer than he had in the first meeting between the teams.
"Jordan played outstanding," Jolly admitted. "He stepped it up when he needed to. That's what big-time players do."