Winding road continues for Cavaliers
GREENSBORO — Like the song says, the road is long, with many a winding turn — that leads us to who knows where.
For North Rowan’s boys basketball team, the road continues to wind after Saturday afternoon’s remarkable 58-55 win against East Rutherford.
It was the third straight head-spinning, we-were-losing-but-now-we’re-winning triumph for the Cavaliers, who are punching their way through a 2A West bracket laden with heavyweights.
North is too talented, too experienced and too well-coached to wear the underdog label comfortably, but in a 10-day playoff span, 10th-ranked North has outlasted three teams that were ranked higher in the state media poll.
“We’ve beaten some really strong teams, three of the top six in the state,” sighed North coach Andrew Mitchell, who was emotionally spent after his team’s latest rally. “And there’s still a long way to go. A very long way to go. We are in the toughest bracket in the playoffs.”
North was ranked 10th in the final NCPreps.com poll media poll with 10 points. Six of those 10 points came from the Salisbury Post’s fifth-place vote, but even the Post, which listed North (20-5) behind unbeaten Smoky Mountain, once-beatens Shelby and Trinity and defending champion Kinston, may have underrated the Cavaliers.
Team of destiny is an overused term, but maybe it fits here. And even if North isn’t a team of destiny,there’s no question that uncommitted 6-foot-2 senior Michael Connor Jr. is a player of destiny.
Connor has averaged 20.4 points in North’s last 14 games, but it’s not how many points he scores but when he scores them. He gets them in bunches that energize his teammates and deflate opponents.
Connor’s 3-point spree in his final home game game that sank fifth-ranked East Lincoln in the second round is already the stuff of legend. Connor’s 19 points (after a scoreless first half) made the difference in the overtime win on the road at No. 1-ranked Shelby. Then he topped that effort against sixth-ranked East Rutherford. Scoreless again in the first half, he accounted for 22 in the second.
“I couldn’t hit a shot in the first half,” Connor said. “But at this point in the season, it’s about heart more than anything else. I just had to give it all I had. You don’t want it to be the last game. I had to keep believing I’d get my shots — and they’d start falling.”
One of the nice things about regional play is the official stat sheet the NCHSAA serves up at halftime.
This particular stat sheet said the Cavaliers had been awful (25-percent shooting, 12 fouls committed) and the hard-truth numbers specifically called out Connor — 0-for-6 from the floor with three turnovers.
“How did I feel at halftime?” said North assistant Tim Bates. “I felt pretty good that we were only down seven. Mike Connor is for 0-for-6, and we’re down just 26-19. We knew we were OK. We just had to rebound better. We had to play harder and play tougher.”
The first half North played Saturday was reminiscent of the dreary first half the Cavaliers walked through in the 1A state championship against Pender in 2011, Mitchell’s first year as head coach. North shot 26 percent in the first half to shovel a 14-point hole in that one. But after getting chastised at halftime by Mitchell and assistants Bates and Bill Kesler, the Cavaliers stormed back to win going away.
Mitchell didn’t panic at halftime Saturday either, but the words the coaches used weren’t gentle.
“We didn’t say a lot in there that was printable in a newspaper,” Mitchell said with a weary smile. “Guys were complaining they were getting pushed around and beat up and scratched and weren’t getting any calls. I told them they could keep right on complaining about it or they could play so hard that nothing else was going to matter. We’ve got great kids. We’re fortunate to have kids that when we go at them hard as coaches, they don’t drop their heads. They respond to coaching. And they responded like they have all year when we’ve faced tough obstacles.”
North nearly got buried in the first half beyond the point of rescue. The deficit was 20-9 at one point, and when Jalen Sanders and Michael Bowman both got their third fouls in a 40-second span, North was in serious trouble.
“Fortunately, we’ve got smart kids,” Mitchell said. “They know how to play with three fouls or with four fouls. They understand they can’t gamble as much. They played smart. They were able to stay in the game.”
North’s second-half comeback was fueled by seniors Connor and Bowman (11 points, 10 rebounds), who were freshmen contributors on the 2011 state-title team. Talented sophomore Sanders, who kept North in the game in the first half, finished with 16.
North turned the ball over only twice in a frantic second half and shot a respectable 48.3 percent from the floor — mostly because Connor was 7-for-10 with three 3-pointers.
Still, North needed a little destiny at the end on Saturday — and got it.
“We always believe we have a chance,” Mitchell said. “At some point, our guys seem to do the right things — and better late than never.”
North trailed by one with 36 seconds left when Bowman fouled 6-6 Army recruit Travis Waldroup-Rodriguez, who averages 21 points per game and shoots 86 percent from the foul line.
Waldroup-Rodriguez was the guy East Rutherford wanted on the line, but he missed just his 20th free throw all season in 157 attempts. Shortly after that, Bowman was making a spinning shot for North’s first lead all day.
While North was dismal at the foul line Saturday (13-for-29), missed free throws by opponents have been helpful for the Cavaliers. If Shelby’s Gabe DeVoe, a 73-percent foul shooter headed to Clemson, makes a free throw at the end of regulation last Friday. North’s season ends right there,
But the long, winding road continues, and it will continue today with a rare Sunday game because of weather-related rescheduling. At 2 p.m. at UNC Greensboro, North takes on undefeated Smoky Mountain from Sylva. Smoky Mountain is ranked second in the 2A poll and is a smart, sharp-passing team.
“After seeing them play (against Hunter Huss), it’s not hard to see why they’re undefeated,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a long, tough road and it doesn’t get easier.”
A victory would be the 100th for Mitchell in his four seasons at North.
North or Smoky Mountain will play Kinston for the state championship next Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Reynolds Coliseum. Ranked third, Kinston (25-5) won 2A state titles in 2010, 2012 and 2013 and also won 3A in 2008.