Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 9, 2014
GREENSBORO — For the second-straight game, North Rowan needed a big-time bucket late in a close battle.
And for the second-straight day, senior Michael Bowman stepped up and delivered.
Bowman hit a baseline runner with just over a minute left to put the Cavaliers up for good as North knocked off undefeated Smoky Mountain 58-56 to win the 2A West Regional.
“Once again, I was on the right side of the floor and everybody cleared to the left side,” Bowman recalled. “And, once again, big-time players make big-time plays. So I had to go and get it.”
Bowman finished with a game-high 19 points and eight rebounds en route to earning MVP honors as the Cavs punched their ticket to next week’s state championship game.
“I thought it was an excellent game,” a fired-up Andrew Mitchell said afterwards. “I thought the guys stayed focused and worked the game plan to perfection.
“And as always, we serve a mighty God. Through every obstacle they can think to put us through, these guys played hard and we were able to come through it. I’m just so thankful to be apart of a group and a team and a program like this.”
After coming out lifeless and flat Saturday against East Rutherford, the Cavaliers knew they couldn’t afford a repeat performance against a well-disciplined Smoky Mountain squad.
Bowman made sure of that, hitting an early layup as North scored six of the first seven points of the afternoon — matching its first-quarter output from the day before in the opening two minutes.
“If you fall behind early, you have to spend a whole lot of energy trying to catch up,” Mitchell explained. “So it was good to be able to get ahead a little bit and not have to have points.”
The Mustangs had an answer as sharpshooter Cal Raleigh drilled three three-pointers in the first quarter to give Smoky Mountain a 19-16 lead at the first horn.
North clamped down defensively in the second and contested every three-point shot. Offensively, the Cavs began to take advantage of their size down low.
Bowman muscled his way in for two before Jalen Sanders found space inside to lay it up to give North a 21-19 edge. Key bench player Josh Handy then buried a trey to push the lead out to five.
The Cavs led 31-26 at the intermission.
“We’ve played big games on back-to-back nights this year against Winston-Salem Prep and Bull City Prep, so we are used to it,” Michael Connor added. “We just wanted to take our time out there.”
North did exactly that coming out of the break, holding the ball each possession to get open looks. Bowman hit back-to-back shots before Kenyon Tatum converted a three-point play as the lead hit nine at 41-32 late.
But the Mustangs wouldn’t go away, clawing back to cut the deficit to five heading to the fourth at 47-42.
The spurt carried over to the final frame as Spencer Norris brought Smoky Mountain level at 53-all, capping an 11-6 run.
After the teams traded baskets, Bowman took over and put the Cavaliers up for good, knocking down a runner before hitting a clutch free throw to push the lead to three late.
Tatum sealed the win with a huge rebound on a missed free throw and held the ball until the clock hit zero as the Cavaliers rushed the court to celebrate.
“This win is great for the program. We’ve won two regionals and been here three times in four years, so to win another win is great,” Mitchell said. “This one feels just as good or better than the last one. Anytime you can win and advance to the championship and play the very last game of the season, that’s a great feeling.”
Standing between the Cavs and their second state title in four years is a powerful Kinston team, which is making its third-straight appearance in the championship match.
“We know they are big. They’ve been there and know how to play,” Mitchell explained. “We know we’ll have our hands full. But this is exactly what we ordered.
“I’m happy for these guys because they’ve put in so much,” he continued. “Especially Mike [Bowman] and Mike [Connor]. to win it in their first year and stay humble and keep working…now they’re back here their senior year.”
“Freshman year we came out on top. I just pray to God that we can come out on top again,” Bowman added.
“It’s alright getting there,” Connor chimed in. “But I want to win it again.”
SMOKY MOUNTAIN (56) — Raleigh 19, Norris 14, Carter 11, Wolfe 8, Baldwin 3, Couch 1, Speir.
NORTH ROWAN (58) — Bowman 19, Connor 11, Sanders 10, Tatum 7, Handy 7, Nelson 4, Walker, Scott.
S. Mountain 19 7 16 14 — 56
N. Rowan 16 15 16 11 — 58