Neither Ardrey Kell head basketball coach Michael Craft nor his star guard Steven Santa Ana will let one bad quarter ruin an otherwise historic season for the Knights.
But they both admit their loss in the state 4A title game to Garner Magnet still stings.
“It was an incredible journey,” Craft said. “I wish it would’ve ended differently, but this group did something special, and as time goes on they’ll realize that.”
What they did was win 27 straight games after an early season loss to Myers Park. They went through the SoMeck 8 Conference undefeated, beating quality conference teams such as Olympic and Catholic and and nonconference opposition such as Victory Christian and Lake Norman, which knocked Ardrey Kell out of the 2014 playoffs.
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In their second round playoff game against Richmond County, the Knights were dealt another blow when point guard Devin Cooper tore his ACL, but Ardrey Kell responded with a comfortable revenge win against Lake Norman to head to the semis.
There they faced West Charlotte in Winston-Salem, and it looked like the season might have ended there. West Charlotte led 50-49 with a couple of seconds left when Craft called timeout. The inbounds play was drawn for Santa Ana, the Elon signee who led Ardrey Kell in scoring with 15.2 points per game for the season.
Josh Freund set a screen, and Santa Ana came around and took the pass in the corner, right in front of his team’s bench. He let a three-pointer go, and the shot swished through just before the final buzzer, sending Ardrey Kell to the state title game.
“The play was run just the way coach called it,” Santa Ana said. “Josh (Freund) set a perfect screen, and the inbounds pass got to me in stride. When it left my hand, it felt good, I’ve never hit a bigger shot than that.”
In the title game March 14 at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, the Knights had a tough first quarter, falling behind 22-8 and trailing by as many as 18 before rallying.
They would actually take a brief lead early in the fourth quarter, but the rally drained a lot of their energy, especially playing without Devin Cooper and also Collin Cooper (no relation), who tore a muscle in his leg and missed almost three quarters of the title game. Ardrey Kell lost 70-64.
But Santa Ana put on a performance for the ages. After starting the game 1-for-7, the 6-foot-3 guard went 12-for-19 after that and 13-for-15 from the line, finishing with 44 points and 8 rebounds.
“It’s one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen,” Craft said. “Steven didn’t force things, either, he passed when he needed to, but once he felt hot, we knew we had to get the ball in his hands. He was incredible.”
The team was far from a one-man show, however. Rhyle Scott (11.1 points) is weighing options to play Division III college basketball, Cooper has signed to play at Radford, Freund has committed to Randolph College, and Luke Lawson is waiting to see if he gets an appointment to play at Army.
And they were a tight bunch, working out and hanging out together. It was a relationship that Santa Ana said made the team more successful – and is what he will miss most about playing basketball at Ardrey Kell.
“Many of us have been together for more than four years,” Santa Ana said. “Our goal was a state title, and that’s disappointing we didn’t get it done, but we were a family, and to get to be with these guys every day was special and something I’ll take with me.”
Matt Kline is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Matt? Email him at Mathew_kline@att.net.