APEX — When there's a raucous crowd involved, the tide of a tight game can turn quickly in favor of the home team. That was the case for the Apex Cougars on Friday night as they hosted Middle Creek in a game for first place in the Tri-Nine Conference.
After being down six entering the final period, a tying 3-pointer from Apex reserve Tim Merithew in front of a delirious "Cougar Crazies" Apex student section got home crowd rocking. It was quickly answered with a Middle Creek 3-pointer, but Corey Burnette's old-fashioned three-point play on the other end put Apex in front - and the crowd back on its feet - for good.
The frustrations began to mount for Middle Creek, as they were incapable of retaking the lead in a 52-47 loss.
The Mustangs shot just 3-of-16 in the final period, and both head coaches thought that the pressure of being down on the road forced Middle Creek to force shots.
"Once you get a lead, (any team) starts pressing a little bit," Apex coach David Neal said. "When you're down in the fourth quarter on the road, you feel like you need to make a play. I thought our defense was very good in the fourth quarter, very sound. We stayed in front of them, made them shoot over us, then rebounded the ball well enough to pull it out."
For Middle Creek coach David Kushner, the problem his Mustangs (10-5, 6-2), ranked 5th in the N&O boys basketball rankings, was shot selection.
"The idea of us spreading them out was to make them guard us and get to the hoop. Maybe all but one of those 16 shots were jump shots," Kushner said. "When we got down 3, 5, 6 everyone thought they had to make a seven-pointer and just kept shooting 3s thinking that somehow going to get us into the lead instead of attacking the basket."
Middle Creek's Jon Moore, who sat out the final two minutes, started the night as the primary defender of Apex's T.J. Evans -- a sophomore who had been averaging 20 points per game. Evans didn't touch the ball until the five-minute mark in the first quarter, and didn't score his first points until 1:30 remaining in the same period.
Evans began to flourish in transition to close out the game for Apex - ranked 7th in the N&O rankings - and finished with 20 points.
But when Evans was struggling to receive a pass, Apex reserve Myles Owens was stepping up. The guard finished with 14 points, including eight in the first half.
"We knew we had to play good and I had to come off the bench provide a spark for the team," Owens said. "Other people have to be able to score or else we won't have a very good team."
Middle Creek's top scorers were Quinton Ray with 13 points and Marvin Wilson with 12.
In the second half of the conference schedule, Apex (13-2, 7-1) will hit the road to play Green Hope, Middle Creek and arch-rival Cary - which is tied for fifth in the league.
"There's not anything easy about it - there isn't ever anything easy about it in the Tri-Nine," Neal said.