North Mecklenburg High senior C.J. Bryce thought this basketball season could be special almost as soon as the last one ended.
The Vikings lost 63-54 to Mount Tabor in the second round of the 2014 N.C. 4A playoffs. But Bryce knew North Mecklenburg would return four starters for the 2014-15 school year. He felt that would be more than enough to vault the Vikings among the state’s elite teams.
Through the first half of the season, Bryce has been right.
North Mecklenburg (14-1, 4-1) is tied with West Charlotte, Hough and Concord’s Robinson High for first place in the MECKA 8 Conference. The Vikings, who will play Hough (10-3, 3-2) at home Friday night, have been ranked No. 1 in statewide polls and are No. 3 in the Observer’s Sweet 16. Their 14 wins includes a championship title at the prestigious Arby’s (Tenn.) Classic over Christmas break.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Bryce, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound senior, was named most valuable player after scoring 21 points and adding seven rebounds in a 55-54 win over then unbeaten Centerville (Ohio) in the final. In four tournament games, Bryce scored 75 points and made 63 percent of his field goals.
“We’ve got great chemistry,” said Bryce, who transferred from rival Hopewell High before the start of his junior season. “It’s gotten better every year. I had two bad years at Hopewell and I transferred.
“I got into the automotive program at North and it’s a better situation. North Meck is a great school to be at and coach (Duane) Lewis knows what he is doing, and it always feels good to win.”
North Meck has advanced to three state championship games . The Vikings lost in 1987, won in 2005 and lost in ’06. Since his last finals appearance, Lewis has coached four teams that had 20 or more wins, but this team might be the best he’s fielded since the back-to-back finals teams.
Bryce’s team won 13 straight games, including a commanding 76-69 win over then-Sweet 16 No. 1 West Charlotte in December. West Charlotte is unbeaten against other N.C. opponents. And the Vikings’ average margin of victory is 23.3 points per game.
Bryce is a big part of it with big games,, like the Arby’s final performance and the 28 points in the win against West Charlotte, including 19 in the second half.
“He was competitive, energetic,” West Charlotte coach Baronton Terry said of Bryce. “He plays hard. He’s a real good kid. And he can be a matchup problem. He could play the (small forward) or (power forward) and play against a smaller guard. He can play the point. He’s just versatile.”
Bryce, who turned 18 in October, is a second-generation North Mecklenburg player. His father, Clarence Sr., graduated in 1984 before he played football at Mars Hill. C.J. Bryce chose UNC Wilmington for basketball over Charlotte, Witchita State, Appalachian State, Marshall and Delaware.
He said first-year UNCW coach Kevin Keatts – a former Louisville assistant – promised him a shot to play right away. UNCW was 42-80 in the four seasons before Keatts arrived, led by former UNC player Buzz Peterson. The Seahawks are 8-8 this season.
“I definitely want to go somewhere and start out playing,” Bryce said. “I love the game so much, and I don’t know that I could take a year sitting out. I want to go in trying to be as good as I can be. I like the coaching staff over there. ... I know (Keats) knows what he’s doing. I’m trying to help turn things around for them.”
But before he attends college, Bryce wants to leave his and his father’s alma mater with a parting gift.
“I don’t want to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to the state championship,’ ” Bryce said. “But we’re getting better every day. We’re working on our weaknesses. We just want to win as many games as possible.
“If we can go undefeated for the rest of the season, that would be great. I want to win the state but I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it. I just want to keep getting better every day with my teammates.”