GREENSBORO — The bell has tolled for North Rowan and the high-flying circus it calls a boys basketball team.
The Cavaliers may have gone down in Friday night’s dehydrating, double-overtime loss in the 1A Western Regional semifinals, a head-spinning loss left frozen by disappointment. But let the record show they went down standing up.
“I’m not making any excuses,” coach Andrew Mitchell said after North may have been sucker-punched by fate at UNC Greensboro’s Fleming Gym. “I watched my kids compete on the floor all night. I just wish — I wish — it could have been fair.”
Frustration ruled North’s post-game meeting with the media, and perhaps much of it was justified. A most glaring stat showed defending state champion Winston-Salem Prep converted 28 of 42 free throws, while the Cavs attempted only 29, sinking 13.
“We did one thing to hurt ourselves — and that’s miss free throws,” Mitchell said dejectedly.
To be honest, it was an unexpected reaction to a game that quickly became a winter classic. These were two comets lighting up the night, two heavyweights going eyeball-to-eyeball for 40 minutes, each looking to throw a knockout punch. Neither succeeded, but Prep secured a split decision when North turned the ball over for the 25th and final time with 15 seconds to play.
“We knew they were the second-best team in North Carolina — and very easily could be the best,” winning coach Andre Gould exhaled afterward. “We just figured out how to win the ballgame. They weren’t going to give us anything.”
The game had more twists and turns than a New York City cab ride. Tied after one quarter, North two ahead at the half and tied again after three periods.
“You don’t win in two seconds,” senior Oshon West said in a subdued tone after netting 16 points in 22 fould-plagued minutes. “But we still should have won the game.”
North had its chances. Junior Michael Bowman turned a third-quarter steal into a jailbreak layup, giving the Cavs a four-point lead in the third quarter. And when teammate Michael Connor stuck a 3-pointer from the left corner late in the first OT, North sat on a 62-57 cushion. A week after stunning Monroe in the sectional final, the Cavs had to feel like they were about to bottle some more magic.
“We did,” do-everything guard T.J. Bates said. “We just didn’t execute when we were supposed to. That’s how we lost the game.
So is this: from the fourth quarter to the finish line, they made just seven of 19 free throw attempts. And while North may have drowned itself, Prep helped fill the pool.
“This was a good game,” said WSP senior guard RaeKwon Harney, the game’s leading scorer with 17 points. “There were times when we worried about rushing it when we had the game in our hands.
For much of the first half, Prep looked as off-balance as a high-wire performer with vertigo. The Pheonix missed more shots than it made in the first quarter and won the game despite connecting on only 35 percent of its field goal attempts.
“I think we gave it away a couple of times,” Gould told the post-game pen-wielders. “But at the end of the day they found a way to win. They dug deep.”
Perhaps that’s what made this loss so infuriating for North. They shot the ball better, coralled more rebounds and made more steals. But Prep, now 30-1, walk away the winner.
So while the Cavaliers arrived with swords held high, they left the same way. Even if they were nursing a dream that had just been administered last rites.
“I give my team total praise,” Mitchell concluded. “These kids, they were rolled and fouled and beat on all night long — and they don’t get to stay on the floor.”
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