1A State Championship: North Rowan boys 64, Pender 57
By Mike London
RALEIGH — Javon Hargrave grabbed Samuel Starks in a gleeful bear-hug that threatened to crush his lighter teammate’s rib cage, and North Rowan’s senior leaders celebrated a wild conclusion to an amazing season.
A midcourt party seemed unlikely most of the tense afternoon, but North dominated the second half with defense, galloped out of a scary, 19-point hole and won going away.
“Offense wins fans, but defense and rebounding win championships,” North coach Andrew Mitchell reminded everyone.
North beat Pender 64-57 for the 1A championship on Saturday afternoon at Reynolds Coliseum, surviving an onslaught by Addison Spruill, who piled up 32 points and 17 boards. Spruill, 6-foot-4 and built like an NFL linebacker, should’ve gone straight to the NCHSAA Hall of Fame at halftime. He had 25 points at the break, matching North’s output.
North (27-5) started shakily. The combination of Pender’s 6-foot-10 shotblocker Keynan Pittman and big-stage nerves led to ugly airballs, bricks off the side of the backboard and free throws that sailed so wide they nearly left the building.
North didn’t score until T.J. Bates trickled in a free throw more than four minutes into the game and didn’t make a field goal until Starks dunked with 2:42 left in the first quarter. North trailed 18-8 after a quarter — and the Cavs’ eight included a 3 that Starks banked in.
As bad as it was, North didn’t point fingers. Mitchell didn’t lose his composure.
With three minutes left in the half, Starks made a soaring tip-in with his back to the rim. Spruill didn’t bat an eye. He answered with a three-point play, and it was 33-14. North still didn’t panic.
Then, suddenly, the jitters evaporated. In the last two minutes of the half, Michael Connor, Jordan Kimber and Michael Bowman hit 3-pointers. North shot 25 percent from the field and 1-for-8 from the foul line, but it was down by just 14 at halftime. And there was a long way to go.
Mitchell was ready to yell in the locker room, but his assistants jumped the players first. The words were strong. The message was clear. A focused group of Cavs came out for the second half.
Spruill hit a 3-pointer to open the half. Now he had 28 points, but he would add just four more in the last 15 minutes. The Cavs had figured out he was the only Pender Patriot who could do any damage, and they swarmed all over him. Starks scored three quick buckets. Reynolds vibrated with noise. The tide turned.
“We could feel we had a lot more energy than they did at the start of the second half,” said Starks, who scored 19 and earned MVP honors. “And their energy was dropping. They were getting tired.”
North’s 6-7 soph Malik Ford, silent in the first half, got back-to-back dunks off feeds by Bowman and Pierre Givens. North was pressuring every pass, every dribble, and Pender (24-5) was wilting.
Givens, honored as North’s “outstanding player” nailed a 3-pointer to end the third quarter, and North fans stood as one and roared. The deficit was five, but it was clear it was just a matter of time.
“Our kids felt like the game was theirs and stopped playing as aggressive,” Pender coach Gary Battle said. “We got a little lazy. Then North came back. They gained confidence, and we lost some.”
An acrobatic drive by Givens with 4:41 left cut Pender’s lead to a single point, and Givens found Bates for the go-ahead bucket with 4:03 remaining. It was 53-52, and North led for the first time all day.
Kimber scored on a hanging drive. Spruill answered with two free throws. North was up 55-54 and had the ball with 2:19 left. Mitchell called timeout.
Kimber got caught in the air and turned it over at 2:03, but Hargrave, all 275 pounds of him, crashed to the floor to force the turnover that got the ball back.
After Kimber and Givens dribbled away dozens of precious seconds, it came down to whether or not the Cavaliers could make free throws.
They could. Givens swished two with a minute left. After Bowman picked off a Pender pass, Bates hit two free ones with 40 ticks to go, and North led 59-54.
Pittman’s three-point play cut North’s lead to two with 31 seconds left, but Bates calmly drilled two clutch two free throws, then grabbed a manly defensive rebound in traffic and drained two more.
“It was a great feeling,” Mitchell said. “Just to be able to stand there and watch the guys know those free throws down.”
Twenty-five years after they won their first state title, the Cavs finally could celebrate their second.
It was time for bear-hugs.
NORTH ROWAN (64)— Starks 19, Givens 13, T. Bates 9, Bowman 7, Ford 6, Kimber 5, Connor 3, Hargrave 2, Chambers, A. Bates.
PENDER (57) — Spruill 32, Hand 9, Powell 5, Pittman 5, Tr. Hansley 4, K. Hansley 2, J. Hansley, Ty. Hansley, Spencer, Gresham.
N. Rowan 8 17 17 22 — 64
Pender 18 21 8 10 — 57