The Providence Day boys' basketball team trailed Hickory Grove 49-42 after three quarters in Providence's second game of the Prep All-Stars Holiday Classic last week at Queens University of Charlotte.
The Chargers trailed by double digits at one point in the second half, and senior starter Kevin Hickson was on the bench, ankle wrapped in ice after coming down wrong chasing a rebound.
Instead of folding, the Chargers fought, outscoring Hickory Grove 17-5 in the final quarter for the win, 59-54.
It was the seventh victory of the team's young season, just one shy of its total from last year. With only two returning starters and a handful of young talent, this year's Chargers (7-3 through Dec. 26) expect to compete with every team in the state.
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"I think a good team doesn't just win pretty games but they also find ways to win when you're a man down or not shooting the ball well," said Brian Field, the Chargers' fifth-year head coach.
Last year, the Chargers weren't so good. They finished 8-20 and lost their last 10 games of the season, including a 55-45 loss to Wesleyan Christian Academy in the first round of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A state tournament.
This year's team has been successful early, beating Ravenscroft, a state semifinalist last year, 70-67 at home and dominating Forsyth Country Day School (which was playing without star Tyler Lewis) 82-47 at home. The Chargers' lone loss before the tournament at Queens was 82-54 to Arden Christ School, which has won four straight NCISAA 3A titles.
"It's a team morale booster to know that all that hard work that we put in at practice and the offseason is starting to pay off," said senior guard Connor Sullivan. "We got off to a great start, we've got to keep it up and keep winning and keep busting our butts."
Sullivan and Hickson are Providence Day's only returning starters. Sullivan (6-foot-1) leads the team with 14.9 points per game and grabs 4.5 rebounds a game. He's also extremely effective on defense, averaging two steals per game. His aggressive defense caused several turnovers late in the Hickory Grove game that turned into easy baskets.
That defensive pressure "made it hard for them to pass and cut," said Sullivan after the game. "When you take away that and you just get up in their grill, turnovers are going to happen, and when turnovers happen points happen for you.
"I know it's corny, but the best offense is a good defense."
The 6-foot-8 Hickson has been reliable inside, averaging 7.6 points and a team-high 6 rebounds a game. Apart from those two, the Chargers' lineup is young but extremely talented.
Sophomore point guard Bryon Fields (5-foot-9) leads the fast-paced Providence Day offense and is extremely quick with the ball. He has the ability to score off the dribble and with a solid outside shot (11.9 points), but he also distributes the ball well for the Chargers, averaging a team-high 5.5 assists.
Providence Day's other young star is freshman Jordan Watkins, who has battled injury recently. The 5-foot-11 shooting guard averages 7.5 points per game and trails only Sullivan in steals, with 1.7 a game. He led the team with 19 points and 8 assists in the Ravenscroft game.
"Those guys have played either JV or middle school last year and they've stepped right in," said Field.
"We had them with us through all our summer workouts and team camp and they're confident kids, they're good players."
Sullivan, Hickson and 6-foot-3 senior Eric Ivers are the Chargers captains and have stepped up to lead the younger players.
"The young guys, I hope they look up to us," said Sullivan. "We try to be vocal leaders in practice."
With the talent the young players have, Sullivan said, leading isn't hard.
"You don't really have to do much," he said. "They're good. We're all clicking right now."
The Chargers still show their inexperience at times, especially in last week's tournament, losing 62-54 in the first game to Veritas Christian Academy. In the fifth-place game Wednesday, the Chargers lost 63-48 to West Mecklenburg with neither Hickson nor Watkins playing.
Injuries have hurt Providence Day, but Field also would like to see improvement defensively, with rotating and rebounds, and offensively, with spacing and knowing where players are going to be.
"We're on our way, we've just got to continue to find ways to get better and to learn from every game we play," Field said.
Field has seen how well his team can play this season and hopes it will continue to improve - and get healthy - as conference play starts after the holiday break.
"There's a lot of very good teams in our state," he said.
"For us to compete night in and night out with the top teams, which is what we want to do, we're going to have to continue to improve and not be complacent."