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Prep Basketball: Salisbury coach Mitchell gets second chance

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
Salisbury girls basketball coach Andrew Mitchell was Rowan County Player of the Year in 1984 when he wore the green of the North Rowan Cavaliers.
The march of time has shoved the humble Mitchell’s long list of accolades and game-winning jumpers into the closet of history, but his greatest athletic disappointment remains as fresh and real and sore as if it happened to him two hours ago.
That’s how it is with competitors. Michael Jordan won a series of championships, but stories surfaced recently regarding UNC’s painful loss to underdog Indiana in Jordan’s final college game in 1984. That no-way-it-should-have-happened debacle ó it was arguably Indiana coach Bob Knight’s greatest moment and arguably Dean Smith’s worst ó still interrupts his sleep and gnaws at Jordan like an ornery Doberman.
Mitchell can feel Jordan’s pain. Twenty-five years ago, Mitchell and teammates who included his brother and two first cousins, came within inches of getting to the 3A state championship game at Greensboro Coliseum.

Mitchell was whistled for a game-deciding foul in the final second of the Western Regional final, although if Mitchell had vices like swearing, he’d swear on a stack of scorebooks he made a clean block.
“That was an exciting time,” Mitchell said at a press conference earlier this week.
“I just remember losing that game at the buzzer. That’s the one thing that’s always stuck in my heart. Kind of being a leader of that team, that year I was MVP in Rowan County and runner-up in the conference, so I felt really bad because a guy took a shot at the end of the game and out of nowhere I blocked the shot, and they called a foul. They went to the line and made the free throws, and we ended up getting beat. That’s stuck with me.”
Twenty-five years after that disappointment, Mitchell’s Salisbury team outlasted its arch-rival ó top-ranked East Davidson ó in the most unusual Western Regional game every played ó and propelled him onto the big stage that was denied him as a player.
Salisbury (28-3) takes on Graham (28-3) Saturday at noon for the 2A title.
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In 1984, North’s boys were a third-place team in the rugged 3A NPC and were ousted in the semifinals of the league tournament.
But they made their move in the district tournament, beating Monroe, Lexington and Thomasville on consecutive nights at Catawba.
Coach Bob Hundley started five seniors, none of them taller than 6-foot-2 Jeff Holshouser, and brought two super-sized sophomores off the bench. Ralph Kitley was 6-foot-9 and still growing. Jimmy Kesler was 6-4 and still growing.
Kesler was Mitchell’s cousin. So was 5-11 Joe Davis, who joined the 6-1 Mitchell on the 1984 all-county first team.
The 18-year-old Mitchell played guard. His 17-year-old brother Michael Mitchell, also 6-1, played center. Damon Beaty was the point guard.
North upset a great Lexington team 59-56 in a district semifinal and beat Thomasville 47-46 to reach the regional. Mitchell, district MVP, made both ends of a 1-on-1 for the decisive points against Thomasville.
Salisbury’s girls made a similar run in 1984, also surging to an unexpected district championship.
Coach Conrad Green had only eight on his roster, but four ó Player of the Year Allison Rice, LaTanya Hart, Tia Blackwell and Gwen Vaughters ó were all-county. Twenty-plus years later, Rice’s son, Tyrese, would become one of the ACC’s most dynamic guards at Boston College.

The district tournament in 1984 was a surreal scene, with North fans cheering for Salisbury’s girls and Salisbury fans cheering on North’s boys. People had expected to see cats hugging dogs before they witnessed that.
As Mitchell and Rice accepted MVP plaques, they embraced at midcourt. There are pictures to prove it.The venue shifted after that to Hickory High for the Western Regional.
Salisbury’s girls lost in the semis to eventual state champ North Iredell.
North fared better. Mitchell scored 13 of his team’s 28 first-half points in a semifinal against Shelby and finished with 22. The Cavaliers won 61-60 in overtime. A tipin by Mitchell and a layup by Kesler provided the critical buckets.
West Caldwell was next, with a trip to Greensboro on the line. The game was played on St. Patrick’s Day, theoretically a lucky time for the green-clad Cavaliers.
Luck didn’t hold.
North led West Caldwell by 10 in the first half, but the Warriors caught up. North scored three points the last 7:37 of regulation and didn’t make a field goal.
It was tied 53-53 coming to the wire. West Caldwell missed, but Warrior Howard Pearson crept underneath for the offensive board and dribbled back out. He put up a shot from 17 feet.
You know what happened next. Mitchell blocked the shot. The whistle blew, and Pearson strolled to the line with a second left and calmly made both free throws ó each of them a dagger into Mitchell’s teenage heart.
North only had time for a desperate heave. Mitchell grabbed the rebound and dunked ó after the buzzer. That act ended his high school career.
“I remember feeling after that game that if we had gotten to the states there was no way we’d lose,” Mitchell said. “I still feel to this day that it was a clean block. I wasn’t really trying to block the shot. Just out of excitement, I jumped up because I had pretty good spring. My hand happened to hit the ball, and when they called that foul, I was devastated.
“I think I’ll always remember that day because I felt like I let my teammates down, the fans. I had a pretty good game (he was all-region) and we played pretty good, but I just always remember that.”

Two years after the loss to West Caldwell, Hundley, Kesler, Kitley and Antione “Ice” Sifford led the Cavs to 29 wins and a state title.When they were freshmen in 2006, Salisbury seniors Shi-Heria Shipp and Kia Rice played in an overtime state-championship loss to Farmville Central in which regulation ended with an unimaginably unfortunate sequence of events.
The Hornets should have won that day. They didn’t.
It’s taken a while, but Shipp, Rice and their teammates have earned another shot at redemption and a ring.
They’ve also given their new coach a second chance.
“To have another opportunity like this, it really is a blessing,” Mitchell said.”
nBret Strelow contributed to this story.

Coming Saturday: A look at the 2A championship matchup with Graham.

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