HOLLY SPRINGS — Coach David Kushner’s inexperienced Mustangs boys’ basketball team rallied with big plays when they needed them most on Tuesday night.
At the end of regulation, Middle Creek sophomore center Fred Irafemi swatted away a potential game-winner at the horn. At the end of overtime, his classmate Quentin Jackson drove the lane and flicked in a buzzer-beating floater that rolled around the rim before falling through.
With clutch plays coming from some of his team’s youngest members, the maturing Mustangs (10-5, 6-1) stayed tied for first in the Tri-9 Conference with a 71-69 overtime win at Holly Springs. Friday’s home game with Apex will determine who gets the top spot at the conference schedule’s halfway point.
“He found a way to get the ball up there and make it,” Kushner said of Jackson’s drive, which Jackson took to the middle of the lane though the play was originally designed to go baseline. Finding a way to make things work is a good sign for the Mustangs, given how the year has played out.
“It’s been a very up and down year,” said Kushner. “Our nonconference schedule was good, but we did not play consistently. And that’s the effort for 32 – 36 – minutes that I haven’t seen all year. We didn’t play great, but every single time we needed to, we made the big play.”
Irafemi’s big play came when he was playing with four fouls. Holly Springs’ D.J. Lowe grabbed an offensive rebound and quickly put up a potential game-winning putback with less than two seconds left, but Irafemi sent it out of bounds towards the Holly Springs bench.
“Fred’s been blocking shots all year,” Kushner said. “He’s probably going to break the school record for block shots in a single-season. (Lowe) was going to make that shot to win the game, he had it from point-blank with two seconds left, but Fred just kind of came out of nowhere.”
Kushner believes one of the reasons his team was able to pull through late was because of how close his team has gotten recently. Kushner missed the previous Friday’s game to attend his grandfather’s funeral, and his players responded with a win and a signed card.
“The kids have been great,” Kushner said. “I just feel that through everything we’ve been through we’re a lot closer, and that’s why we can make the plays we need to at the end of that game.”
Jackson led all scorers with 20 points, while teammates Quinton Ray and Khamari Bobbitt, who Kushner credited for playing through an ankle sprain suffered in the third quarter, each had 16.
The Golden Hawks (7-7, 3-4) are one of the most athletic teams in the Tri-9, but would rather free themselves up for jumpers than drive to the lane. The marksmanship of their shooters was on display early with four 3-pointers in the first quarter.
Holly Springs ended the game making 9-of-20 attempts from beyond the arc, with Lowe having a game-high three made 3-pointers.
“There were just some small things that we didn’t do well. We got a five-point lead and gave up some shots on layups and fouls – got caught up in the moment,” Holly Springs coach Thurman Jordan said. “There is nothing major that we had problems with.”
Holly Springs had four players in double figures: Anthanee Doyle (16 points), D.J. Flippin (13), Markese Evans (13) and Lowe (13). The Hawks take on Lee County Friday.
“We’re looking to keep ourselves in the hunt. The conference is pretty balanced,” Jordan said. “Nobody is running away with it. It seems like everyone is playing overtime and two-point games, so it can go any way in the second half.”
Blake: 919-460-2606 or twitter.com/JMBpreps