Ardrey Kell’s dream season ended in a wild N.C. 4A state championship game at the Smith Center on Saturday night.
Garner held on to beat the Knights 70-64 despite a record-setting performance from Ardrey Kell senior Steven Santa Ana.
Garner (28-1), which won its 19th straight game, got 14 fourth-quarter points from championship MVP Julius Barnes. The Trojans led by as many as 18 early and ended nationally ranked Ardrey Kell’s 27-game winning streak. It was Garners first championship round appearance since 1936 and the school’s first state title.
“We gave up 22 points in the first quarter,” Ardrey Kell coach Mike Craft said. “And they kind of knocked us back on our heels a little bit. I thought we recovered and chipped away, but we had to expend so much energy to do it.”
With his team down 33-21 at halftime, Santa Ana put on a historical show. He was 9 of 14 from the field in the second half and scored 33 points. He finished with 44 points and eight rebounds. That’s the most points in a championship game since the N.C. High School Athletic Association moved the title games to college campuses in 1986. He also made 13-of-15 free throws.
“He’s really tough when he gets fouled and makes free throws,” Craft said. “Man, 44 and 8 in a state championship game? Guys, that’s an ACC caliber player. It’s amazing. It’s phenomenal.”
Santa Ana, a 6-foot-3 senior, is signed to play at Elon in college.
Ardrey Kell took its only lead 51-50 with 6 minutes, 35 seconds to play on Josh Freund’s layup.
But Garner’s backcourt – Barnes, a senior, and sophomore Thomas Allen – took over late. The pair scored Garner’s final 19 points, handling the ball almost exclusively as Ardrey Kell tried to trap the ball. The pair made 7-of-8 free throws in the final 80 seconds when Ardrey Kell was forced to foul.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Garner coach Eddie Gray said. “First half, we played tempo basketball, that was part of our game plan. Ardrey Kell made a heck of a comeback in the third quarter. Santa Ana is an outstanding player. He’s going to make Elon a great freshman class. But we held on at the end and made just enough free throws to win the game.”
People will talk about Santa Ana’s performance for a long time, Gray said.
“Early on, things weren’t going,” Santa Ana said, “and I knew I had to start attacking and getting some buckets. It’s going to be tough to leave here. These guys mean a lot to me. It’s like a family and I’m really glad that I was able to have the success and opportunity I’ve had here.
“I’m really going to miss this place, these coaches, these guys. I can’t say how much this place has meant to me and how much I’ve grown here. It’s been a great ride.”