Mitchell is boys Coach of the Year
By Mike London
The ride to a state basketball championship is rarely smooth, and there were numerous speed-bumps for North Rowan’s Andrew Mitchell, the Rowan County Coach of the Year.
North finished 27-5, all grins and hugs and on top of the 1A world, but the Cavaliers faced dark, dismal days the first week of February.
On Feb. 1, North got mashed at West Montgomery, falling behind 19-4 in the first quarter of the YVC game and losing 74-54 to a team that shot 57 percent from the field.
Six days later, the Cavaliers faltered again in their league, a wrenching 79-76 overtime loss at Albemarle in which Albemarle’s freshman point guard Gregory Childress shot 17-for-18 from the foul line.
At that point, North was worried about staying in the YVC race. Only the optimists drinking green tea and wearing green sunglasses indoors were still dreaming about a state title.
“A real tough time,” Mitchell admitted. “A lot of negative things were being said about me, about my team and about our school.”
It did seem like it was the Cavaliers against the world, and they weren’t helping themselves any with their struggles to make free throws.
Mitchell was convinced he’d never get another call, but the Cavs snapped out of it and came through that rough period tougher mentally. And then they started playing at their highest level of the season physically.
“We became humble,” Mitchell said. “We started working harder and talking less. Looking back, that was the turning point.”
The loss at Albemarle initially crushed Javon Hargrave. For the rugged senior post man, Albemarle had become as bitter a rival as Salisbury and West Rowan.
“That loss to Albemarle was a hard loss,” Hargrave said. “But I think it was the best loss I’ve ever had.”
Coaches always hope their team can learn from wins, but the deepest lessons can only come through the misery of painful defeat.
“Albemarle brought us all together,” Hargrave said.
North wouldn’t lose again.
The road to redemption angled through the country, to South Davidson High in rural Denton, site of the YVC tournament, where the Cavaliers (the second seed) had to beat West Montgomery and Albemarle on back-to-back nights to earn a No. 1 sectional seed.
On Feb. 17, North beat West Montgomery 58-56 in OT. This time West Montgomery shot 44 percent. This time North made its free throws.
Twenty-four hours later, North beat Albemarle 58-54. Childress swished six 3s but the Cavs could live with that. The key stat was that Childress attempted zero free throws.
Those two fierce games in Denton were the stepping stone to monumental wins against loaded Winston-Salem Prep in the Western Regional final and Pender in the state championship game.
North trailed Prep by 11 but won 92-85 in double overtime.
North fell behind Pender by 19 in the second quarter but rallied to prevail 64-57.
“In the first half of the championship game, our emotions were so great we were making the game of basketball very hard,” Mitchell said. “We got them settled down, and we threw five or six guys at their best player (Addison Spruill). He wanted to go left, so we forced him right. We wore him down with a lot of bodies. Only Superman wouldn’t have gotten worn down.”
North had no one who averaged more than 11.1 points (guard Sam Starks), but it had enough balance to average 66.6 points per game.
It was defensively where the Cavaliers performed at historic levels. Their 47.1 points per game allowed was the stingiest defensive effort at the school since 1982.
“We used a lot of different combinations, and we did defend,” Mitchell said. “There were times we had four big guys out there. Other times, we had five guys on the floor who had all been point guards. The big thing is we had tough-minded kids who were unselfish. No one worried about scoring 20. Everyone worried about keeping the guys on the other team from scoring 20.”
Mitchell gave major credit to assistant coaches Bill Kesler and Tim Bates.
“I saw (all-county junior) Pierre Givens as a 2, a 3 or a 4,” Mitchell said. “It was Coach Kesler who told me, ‘This guy is a point guard.’ ”
Givens was indeed a point guard, and he provided a new dimension after he debuted in late December.
The player who improved the most was sophomore T.J. Bates, who made clutch free throws in all of North’s tough tests down the stretch.
“T.J. is a National Honor Society kind of guy, but he’s also tough and physical and he’ll guard anyone,” Mitchell said. “He was beating up his own teammates in preseason, but he learned how to defend people physically, but legally.”
Mitchell lavished praise on Kelly Everhart, the head coach who preceded him. North was 20-6 in 2009-10 under Everhart with many of the same players and won the YVC.
“I came into a great situation,” Mitchell said. “The players had been well-prepared. Kelly did a lot with them. They knew how to play basketball.”
It also was Everhart who came up with a scouting report on Pender that Mitchell said was right on the money.
“Kelly was always supportive, and that was big of him,” Mitchell said. “We were teammates at North (Everhart graduated in 1982, Mitchell in 1984). I backed up Kelly as a receiver and punter on the football team and at point guard on the basketball team.
“This was a great opportunity to kind of back him up coaching this team.”
Mitchell said the team gave Everhart a medal.
In time, Mitchell will receive his shiny championship ring.
“He is a great coach,” Hargrave said. “He pushed us hard.”