North’s title dream comes up short

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 16, 2014

RALEIGH — For 20 minutes, Kinston’s touted Brandon Ingram was tall-that’s-all, but with North Rowan leading Saturday’s 2A championship 28-27 at halftime, North coach Andrew Mitchell tried to prepare his team for what was coming.
“We’ve seen Michael Connor do it so many times for us that we really shouldn’t have been surprised,” Mitchell said. “Rising to the occasion — that’s what the great players do. I knew we’d see a different Ingram in the second half.”
Ingram, a 6-foot-8 junior who has special enough physical gifts that he’s being recruited by UNC and Duke, was 1-for-4 at halftime. But he had 23 of his 28 points and 13 of his 16 rebounds after the break and led Kinston to a 67-57 victory against the Cavaliers that was tighter than it sounds.
“We held Ingram down in the first half,” Connor said. “But he came out killing in the second half. He showed why he’s an All-American.”
Ingram, as tough as he was, was only half of North’s problem at historic Reynolds Coliseum.
While Ingram played a great half, Kinston senior guard Andrew Lopez played a phenomenal 32 minutes. Lopez, who has not made a college commitment yet, kept Kinston in the thick of things in the first half almost by himself, and he finished with a 9-for-14 shooting day and 27 points.
While Kinston got 55 from its big two, North got 51 from its usual trio of scorers. Jalen Sanders, named North’s outstanding player, had 19. Michael Bowman scored 17, and Connor contributed 15.
Bowman’s day included his 1,000th career point on a spectacular drive that he banked home from the right side while flying toward the hoop at full speed. That bucket came in the third quarter.
“It would feel a lot better if we had won the game,” Bowman said. “But it does mean a lot to me.”
Mitchell said Bowman and Connor, who got to 1,000 recently, could have done it long ago if they had looked to shoot more.
“Just two very unselfish guys,” he said. “Two guys who always put the team first.”
Bowman is the 10th Cavalier to register 1,000 points. Connor was the ninth.
North started slowly, trailed 6-2 out of the gate and was down 13-9 after a quarter.
The Cavaliers played sharper in the second quarter, and when Sanders knocked down two long jumpers, one of them good for three, and Josh Handy added a stickback, North enjoyed a 7-0 flurry and a 16-13 lead.
Connor hit a 3-pointer as the Cavaliers pushed ahead late in the first half. They really should’ve been up more than one point at the break, but Lopez had a steal and layup to close the half.
North fought through that second quarter without Bowman and Kenyon Tatum, both of whom were saddled with their second personal fouls early and sat down.
“Bowman and Tatum both had zero rebounds at halftime, and that’s two key rebounders,” Mitchell said. “But our bench helped us and we got to the second half in good shape.”
But the second half is when Ingram, long and fluid, sprang to life. “I told Brandon at halftime we needed him to attack more,” Kinston coach Perry Tyndall explained. “We had struggled some in the first half. North had changed defenses a lot (some man, plus two different zone looks) and we had not done a good job of realizing what they were in and what we needed to do.”
Kinston’s first possession of the second half set off alarms that Ingram was transforming from Dr. Banner into the Incredible Hulk. Kinston got four shots on that opening possession, and the fourth was a tip-in by Ingram.
Early in the third quarter, Kinston went from three down to three up on two possessions when Lopez and Ingram stroked 3-pointers.
“We knew Lopez was the X-factor,” Mitchell said. “He was hard to defend, hard to stay in front of.”
Kinston led 46-43 when Ingram delivered the game’s signature play with 1:27 left in the third quarter. He drove hard from the right side, and even after Handy fouled him, he kept swooping toward the hoop for a slam-dunk finish. That NBAish and-one put the Vikings (26-4) up by seven.
“I know what my team needs,” said the soft-spoken Ingram, his voice barely above a whisper. “That was definitely one of those momentum-changing plays.”
It was, but North was a long way from done. Connor made a free throw, Sanders scored inside, and North trailed 50-46 heading to the last eight minutes.
When Connor swished a 3-pointer and knocked down both opportunities on a one-and-one, North (21-6) had a 9-0 run and a 51-50 lead. That was the momenth of truth for both teams, and Lopez was the game’s dominant player the next few minutes. He scored the Vikings’ next six, and Kinston led 56-52 with 3:52 left.
Twice, Sanders scored on spinnng moves, and North trailed just 58-56 with 2:08 remaining.
But those final two minutes were a blur of missed North runners, floaters and jumpers.Kinston, playing like a confident team scrapping for its third straight state title, calmly knocked down free throw after free throw to pull away.
Kinston fans began a joyous “3-peat” chant, and when Connor missed a 3-pointer with 50 seconds left and North trailing by seven, it was clear those fans were right. Kinston would be a state champion again — for the fifth time in seven years.
“Three in a row is an amazing feat,” Tyndall said. “North presented us with a lot of problems, and this was very tough to do.”
Ingram would go 13-for-15 from the line, while Lopez would shoot 5-for-6.
Kinston was 22-for-28 at the foul line, while North finished 11-for-20. You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out how critical the free-throw line was.
“We fought as hard today as we could fight against a great team,” Mitchell said. “It came down to free throws. They did a better job of getting to the line, and they made theirs and we missed ours.”
It was a tear-stained Saturday for North coaches, players and fans, but there was some pride and even a pinch of joy mixed into the final game for seniors Connor, Bowman, Tatum, who had a dunk, Dalton Nelson, who tumbled over the media table chasing after a loose ball, and Alex Billingsley.
To get to the title game, North made a run in the Western playoffs through No. 5 East Lincoln, No. 1 Shelby, No. 6 East Rutherford and No. 2 Smoky Mountain that probably was as tough a road as any 2A team has ever traveled.
“In no way can I be disappointed with this team,” Mitchell said. “My tears are tears of joy. This probably isn’t the best team we’ve had, but this was the hardest-working team I’ve coached. If I’m emotional, it’s because I love these guys.”

KINSTON (67) — Ingram 28, Lopez 27, Darnell Dunn 6, Ham 4, Davis 2, Hart, Berry, Canady, Darius Dunn, Jones, Matthews.
NORTH ROWAN (57) — Sanders 19, Bowman 17, Connor 15, Tatum 2, Handy 2, Nelson 2, Walker, Scott, Archie, Billingsley .
Kinston 13 14 23 17 — 67
N. Rowan 9 19 18 11 — 57