After taking a two-point lead against North Mecklenburg with just seconds on the clock earlier this month, the Myers Park boys' basketball team looked like it was going to upset the Vikings, now the No. 8 team in the Observer's Sweet 16 poll.
Then North Meck point guard Carlin Bremner launched a running three-pointer as time expired.
"It was one of those shots where you just knew it was going in," said Myers Park head coach Rick Lewis, who has been coaching the Mustangs since 2001.
North Meck won, 48-47. Three days later, the Mustangs lost 50-48 to Waddell.
Myers Park is 3-5 (1-1 Southwestern 4A through Dec. 16), but the record is misleading: four of the five losses have been by four points or less. Despite losing seven seniors from last year's team and returning just one starter, the Mustangs have a chance at winning a weaker Southwestern 4A this year. Plus, they know how to win at the right times.
Last year, the Mustangs started the season 2-4 and had nine losses going into the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A tournament as a wildcard team. They upset No. 1-seed Sun Valley in the first round, beat another top seed, Hopewell, in the second round, and lost to eventual state champion Lake Norman by two points in the third round.
"All the right things came together and we started trusting in each other," said Tyler Powell, a regular off the bench last year.
Even during the 2008-09 season, in which the Mustangs finished 24-7 and lost to eventual state champion Mount Tabor in the Western Regional semifinals, the team started 1-3.
It's not surprising Lewis isn't worried about his team right now.
"They're all non-conference games, they don't mean anything," he said.
The Mustangs didn't make it easy with their non-conference schedule. Their first game of the season was a 59-42 loss to Olympic, the top team in the Sweet 16. They beat Hopewell the second game 37-34 before the North Mecklenburg loss. They also lost by three in a rematch against Sun Valley last week.
"I'd rather play these games so we know what we have," said Lewis. "It's a long process. They all have their heads up."
"We're a young team," said Powell. "As the season goes on we'll start meshing."
A team with nine seniors and three juniors isn't usually considered young, but Lewis said many of the players don't have varsity experience. Senior point guard Thomas Brafford (5-foot-10) is the lone returning starter and only senior forward. Tyler Powell (6-foot-5), going to Western Carolina on a baseball scholarship, and senior guard Taylor Rechner (6-foot-3) played serious minutes last year.
The Mustangs' starting center and one of their top players, Clayton Massey (6-foot-6), is just a sophomore, as is Major Thomas, a 6-foot-5 center who plays solid minutes off the bench.
Lewis said he was happy to see how well the defense played at the beginning of the season, holding every team except Olympic to 50 points or less in the first five games. The coach said he wants his team to play solid defense and keep the other team out of transition. He also emphasizes strength and has every player in a weight-training class first thing every morning.
"We're playing well together; we just have trouble finishing," said Brafford.
Their last three games, the Mustangs' offense has started to come around, scoring 71 points in a four-point loss to Butler - a favorite to win the SW4A - and 70 points in a win against East Mecklenburg.
The key, said Lewis, is getting the ball to his post players. "We just have to pound it in there," he said.
Massey is the team's leading scorer, with 13 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, while Powell is averaging 7.4 points and 6.6 rebounds.
As the Mustangs get deeper into the SW4A schedule, they will lean on their big players even more to try for the conference title. While the SW4A championship would be nice, Lewis is more focused on the "big prize" and the state tournament.
"A lot of these guys were right there with us at Hopewell and when we almost beat Lake Norman," he said. "They've seen it done."