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Prep Basketball: Carson, Salisbury boys on road for regional semifinals

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY —You can call this the fourth round of the high school basketball state playoffs — or you can call it the regional semifinals.

Either way, it’s big.

Three years ago tonight’s games would’ve been played at a neutral site. Hickory, Winston-Salem and Greensboro served as those neutral sites for many years.

But since 2016, only the regional final and state championship games have been played at a neutral venue.

That means road games in hostile arenas tonight for the Salisbury boys and Carson boys. Both are No. 4 seeds, who held serve for three home games in the early rounds. Both play No. 1 seeds tonight. Carson plays at familiar foe Cox Mill and makes the short, albeit congested, ride to Concord. Salisbury plays at unfamiliar foe Mountain Heritage. Mountain Heritage is in Burnsville, a bit north of Asheville and 130 or so miles west of Salisbury.

Salisbury is 26-3, while Carson is 26-2. While the teams have similar strength — Carson edged the Hornets, 67-65, in an epic Christmas tournament championship game at Catawba College two months ago — they have different strong points.

Carson has a surplus of experience and chemistry with four senior starters and a junior in his third year on the varsity. It’s not unusual for Carson’s starters to score every single point for coach Brian Perry. Carson can shoot and Carson can score. Carson has two of the county’s top four players in 6-foot-4 forward Jamarius Hairston and point guard Jailen Williams. Sharpshooting forward Owen White, who might be the state’s best baseball player, has played at a superstar level on the court in February. Cameron Prugh and Cole Perry are wild cards, streaky shooters capable of big nights.

Salisbury is much harder to predict. Eight different guys have scored in double figures for coach Bryan Withers at different times, and no one knows if some of Salisbury’s players are going to contribute 15 points tonight — or zero. Salisbury doesn’t always shoot straight and made only half of its free throws in the third-round win against Hendersonville. The given for Salisbury is guard Trell Baker, a lightning-fast senior who can also shoot with range. Baker has scored more than 20 points in four of his last five games as he surged past 1,000 career points. Salisbury can usually count on guard Oshaun Robinson and 6-foot-5 Bill Fisher for 10 or 12 points. The Hornets’ asset besides depth is quickness. This is a very fast team. Baker seems to be going 90 mph, and his teammates manage to keep up. Cameron Gill and Jahbreal Russell aren’t always the smoothest basketball players, but they’re exceptional athletes.

If you’re wondering if it’s unusual for Rowan to have two teams this good in the same season, well, it is. There’s never been a boys basketball season in which two schools won as many as 26 games.

In the previous 10 seasons, the county’s only 26-win boys teams were Salisbury (2009) and North Rowan (2011 state champs and 2013).

Carson’s boys were ranked seventh in 3A in the final media poll conducted by NCPreps.com-Rivals.com. Carson isn’t all that far from being undefeated. A 77-75 loss at South Iredell was the result of the Cougars’ worst foul shooting of the season. A Saturday afternoon loss (by four) at A.L. Brown came in a weather makeup right after a late Friday night struggle with Statesville.

So Carson has a chance tonight against a Cox Mill team that is the defending 3A state champ and has been the favorite to repeat all season. Tip is at 7 p.m. The game is likely to be a sell-out.

Cox Mill (26-3) is ranked No. 1 in the 3A media poll. Cox Mill hasn’t lost to a North Carolina public school. The Chargers fell to Charlotte’s Providence Day, Long Island Lutheran (N.Y.) and Dematha (Md.) in December.

Carson has won 11 in a row, while Cox Mill has won 15 in a row.

Carson was in the South Piedmont Conference with Cox Mill last season and has played Cox Mill six times since Hairston was a varsity freshman. Carson won two of those games, including a 71-60 stunner when Hairston, Williams and White were sophomores. The trio combined for 56 points in that game.

Cox Mill’s 6-foot-6 Wendell Moore is one of the nation’s top juniors and is expected to announce a college decision next month. He can go anywhere he wants. Moore is impossibly smooth and scary good. He’s won a gold medal for his Team USA age group and has competed against players such as Oklahoma’s Trae Young and Duke’s Gary Trent Jr. Moore is averaging 25.5 points and 7.8 rebounds, even though he’s sat down early in a lot of blowouts.

Cox Mill coach Jody Barbee added Rechon (Leaky) Black to the mix prior to this season. The UNC signee averages 13.8 points, but it’s his length — he’s a legit 6-foot-8  guard— that gives him tremendous upside. Carson hasn’t faced Black since he was playing for the Concord Spiders two seasons ago. Black spent last season at Florida’s Montverde Academy.

Cox Mill’s third-best player is often 6-6 wing Caleb Stone-Carrawell. ACC fans will remember his father, Chris, who played on those late 1990s Duke powerhouses with Shane Battier, Trajan Langdon and Elton Brand.

Salisbury won’t be up against any members of Team USA tonight, but the Hornets will be facing a taller team. Mountain Heritage was ranked second in the final 2A media poll, while Salisbury was in a tie for 10th.

Mountain Heritage (23-1) was supposed to be a year away from making a serious run for coach Hank Newson, but a young team with only one senior starter has become dominant quickly. Mountain Heritage’s Cougars have won 22 straight since losing to 3A Asheville A.C. Reynolds on Dec. 13. That loss came shortly after strong run in the football playoffs. Mountain Heritage won three playoff games before dropping a close one to Reidsville.

Trey Robinson, the quarterback who rushed for more than 3,000 yards and scored 45 touchdowns, is an important component of the school’s basketball team, although he’s not a big scorer.

Sophomore guard Callin Randolph made 11 3-pointers in a game earlier this season. He averages 13 points per game. Junior Brandon Aumiller is the team’s most explosive player. He’s 6-2 and averages 17 points. Sophomore Justus Shelton averages 16 points and gives the Cougars a lot of size with his 6-9 frame. Other key players are 6-3 Lucas Jenkins and guard Hayden Branton. That’s a lot of firepower. Mountain Heritage averages 80 points per game.

So this game is almost sure to be played at breakneck speed. That will be OK with the Hornets, who generally want to play as fast as possible.

Xavier Kesler, an efficient scorer, will be key for the Hornets. He had 18 on Saturday.

Oddly enough, Salisbury and Mountain Heritage were scheduled to play in football back in the fall, but bad weather forced the postponement and eventual cancellation of that contest. Football-playing Hornets such as Baker, Russell, Gill and Jaquan “Gucci” Davis will finally get to take on Mountain Heritage tonight.

Tipoff for the Hornets is at 7:30 p.m, as the Mountain Heritage girls also have made it to the fourth round. They’ll be playing Wilkes Central at 6 p.m.

Admission at both sites tonight will be $9.

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