Middle school boys: Knox avenges losses to North
By Mike London
SPENCER — Knox Middle School boys basketball coach Dominique Bates has a high-profile younger brother — Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive lineman Javon Hargrave.
On Wednesday, Bates’ team played like a bunch of young Hargraves and muscled their way past North Rowan Middle, 54-35, in the 8th-grade championship game played on North’s home floor.
Top-seeded North (15-2) had handled second-seeded Knox twice during the regular season, but it’s never routine beating a good squad three times, and this game traveled a much different road.
“We turned the pain from those two losses into motivation,” Bates said. “We’ve kept fighting all season through a lot of adversity, and today it came together for us.”
The teams were an interesting contrast — with North considerably taller, but also thinner. Both teams had future high school stars in the backcourt in North’s springy Zay Davis (13 points) and Salisbury floor leader Mike McLean, who combines old-school savvy with make-it-happen athleticism.
McLean’s nickname is “Do Everything.” He lived up to the hype with 19 points and a lot of sharp, coach-on-the-floor decisions.
“Mike is a monster,” Bates said. “Just a great team leader. When the guys didn’t feel like practicing hard, Mike made sure they practiced hard, anyway.”
Nate Brown was a beast inside for Knox (14-3) with 16 points and 13 rebounds. He was a high-percentage option, a stick-back machine.
“Nate’s goal is always 15 and 10,” Bates said. “He went out and got that goal today in a championship game.”
Confidence-wise it was important for Knox to start fast, and the Trojans did. They put up the last eight points of the first quarter to lead, 13-4, and they played from in front.
“We knew this was our game and we knew it right from the jump,” McLean said. “We’ve been getting better and better every week. When this season started, our attitudes weren’t right. But today we were a team with no attitudes.”
North didn’t roll over. Davis, a gifted blend of wiry muscle, sky-walking vertical and dreadlocks, is like the second coming of former Salisbury superstar Darien Rankin, He lifted North back to a 23-17 halftime deficit, and there was a feeling in the gym that North, despite a rash of missed opportunities from point-blank range, could still get it done.
Coach Reggie McConneaughey’s Mavericks fought back within five points in the third quarter on a three-point play by Davis, but McLean sparked a 6-0 answering run that knocked the home team back.
“The key thing in the second half was boxing out,” McLean said. “North is a whole lot longer than us, but we got big rebounds we needed by working hard on the boards. Our inside players (Brown and Isaiah Clay) did a great job.”
So did long-armed Joseph Witherspoon.
“Joseph played like he had extra arms, like an octopus,” Bates said. “We got after it on defense today. That was the difference.”
When Varney Laymon rejected a North shot at the third-quarter horn, Knox took a 34-27 lead to the fourth quarter, and then had no trouble holding it. Witherspoon’s runner at the outset of the quarter pushed the lead to double digits. Laymon tossed in a dagger at the 4:20 mark. Then McLean controlled the ball and was automatic at the foul line in the stretch run.
“My guys really impressed me today,” Bates said. “This group also won as seventh-graders. I believe they’re the first Knox boys team to win back-to-back.”
KNOX (54) —McLean 19, Brown 16, Witherspoon 9, Laymon 5, Clay 4, Biggers 1.
NORTH (35) — Davis 13, Graham 7, Smith 6, Goodes 4, Colson 3, Gladden 2.
Knox 13 10 11 20 — 54
North 4 13 10 8 — 35