Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 9, 2014
GREENSBORO — North Rowan’s boys basketball team must know how late comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to feel.
Victories have come in abundance for the magma-hot Cavaliers this season. Respect, not so much.
“It’s not even that important,” senior Michael Bowman said yesterday at UNCG’s Fleming Gymnasium. “In the middle of the season they were coming out with all these Top 10 and Top 16 polls — and we weren’t even ranked. We were honorable mention. Well, look where we are now.”
Look indeed. North’s men-of-the-moment have survived five molar-grinding rounds of the 2A state playoffs, including a drawn-out weekend of single-elimination drama in Western Regional. The Cavs have persevered, with swords held high, and will carry an 11-game winning streak into Saturday’s state final. They’ve watched four ranked adversaries tumble at their feet — East Lincoln, Shelby, East Rutherford and now Smoky Mountain — and they are still standing.
But are they respected? Did some questionable, after-the-fact behavior by all involved leave North coach Andrew Mitchell feeling shortchanged?
“Respect is not given, it’s earned,” he told a small assembly of post-game media members after notching his 100th victory at North. “If we win a state title we will have earned it.”
They deserved something for yesterday’s narrow win over previously unbeaten and top-seeded Smoky Mountain. No, it wasn’t their Sunday-best, but the Cavs played like March madmen after coughing up all of a nine-point third-quarter lead.
“It was a really hard game to win,” said guard Jalen Sanders, one of three North scorers to crack double figures. “They’re not a bad team. When you go up against something like that, you can’t sleep.”
North was wide awake and looking to throw a knockout punch after a film-at-11 play by Kenyon Tatum with 3:40 remaining in the third period. The senior forward picked off a pass intended for Spencer Norris near midcourt, then stampeded through the left side for a layup that gave the Cavs a 40-32 lead. Hacked on the play by Zechariah Carter, Tatum calmly completed his three-point play.
“Every time they drove, it was hard,” said SM junior Cal Raleigh. “Especially at the end. That was their mindset. But I still believe if we play them again, we beat them. It was just one of those days.”
It was a day that began particularly well for Raleigh, a 6-foot-4 banger with a sweet shooting touch. He made four of his first five shots and stuck a trio of 3-pointers, finishing with 13 points in the opening quarter.
“He’s a versatile basketball player,” said Bowman, who finished with 19 points and left with the best-looking girl — the regional MVP award. “We had to play him man-to-man and gut it up.”
Raleigh had the game’s loudest numbers — 19 points, 16 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots. But on a day when the Mustangs shot only 35 percent from the field and were outrebounded 40-31, it wasn’t enough.
“We played our game,” he said in a crowded post-game hallway. “They didn’t stop us from that. It was just some of our shots weren’t falling, shots we make nine times out of 10.”
Instead it was North’s grinding offense and steel-wall defense that won this game. The Cavs led by five entering the fourth quarter and were up 53-47 when Bowman scored on a spinning, Twizzle play with 5:34 remaining.
“Yeah,” North’s Michael Connor smiled. “But against this team you couldn’t relax. Not until the final buzzer.”
Or at least not until Bowman drove the right side for his final basket, a decisive layup that snapped a 55-55 tie with 1:03 to play.
“It’s tough to walk away,” guard Jayce Wolfe said after SM’s season flatlined. “We thought we had the team to do it, to go all the way. We had all the pieces. But they were by far the best (team) we’ve played all year.”
Hmmm. Now a statement like that looks, sounds and smells like respect — a valued word that even the President trips over now and then.
“I think they’re a great team,” said Raleigh. “I can’t speak for everyone, but they’re well-respected by us.”
Mitchell, for one, would be happy to hear that.
“We’ve been treated this way all year long,” he said. “And I love where we’re at right now.”