APEX — Middle Creek boys basketball coach David Kushner smiled plenty after his team recovered from a three-game skid during the first full week of December. He was smiling again Friday night after he talked to his team following a 64-57 home win against Apex that broke a tie for first place in the Tri-9 Conference.
Things are still jumbled in the Tri-9 as all of its teams are at the halfway point of the conference slate, but this was the Mustangs’ second game this week in which it closed out strong. It polished off a road win in overtime Tuesday against Holly Springs.
And with four teams within one game of each other at the top of the standings, little things will come up big down the stretch, including strong finishes. On Friday, Apex led with about four minutes to go, but the Mustangs held the Cougars to 3-of-10 shooting to close out the game on a 16-7 run.
“When (Apex was) on that run at the end, I didn’t see us panic,” Kushner said. “I challenged them after (the December losing skid) ... The way they’ve responded has been amazing.”
The visiting Cougars (8-7, 6-2) jumped out to an 11-1 lead in the first half, getting three steals and two blocks that led to fast break points on the other end. Senior point guard Quinton Ray began to calm his Mustangs down after that and Middle Creek led 31-28 at halftime.
Ray was a steadying force for his team, earning the praise of Apex coach David Neal afterward. The Mustangs’ turnovers from the first quarter didn’t carry into the fourth, and Middle Creek got more stops by claiming defensive rebounds.
That, plus Apex’s T.J. Evans (16 points) fouling out with about three minutes left, helped Middle Creek (11-5, 7-1) overcome its 5-of-13 shooting from the free throw line in the final quarter.
“I told them to not get their heads down. Usually when someone gets an 11-1 lead on you, you’ll put your head down,” Ray said. “But we just had to get back on defense. They weren’t doing anything special to get that lead on us.”
Ray, who had 12 points at halftime and ended the game with 17, was able to find his teammates on the low block, where the Mustangs got easy buckets while using their size advantage.
Power forward Khamari Bobbitt (nine rebounds) scored 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting, while Fred Iruafemi had nine points on 6-of-8 shooting. Iruafemi added eight rebounds and six blocks.
“When (Ray) wasn’t scoring he was getting assists coming off the ball screen on the sideline,” Neal said. “I thought (Middle Creek’s) interior passing was good. (Ray) would get his dribble picked up at the free throw line area and somehow find someone down on the block and they’d be getting a layup or an and-1... We know what the shot chart looks like, and it’s painful.”
Apex’s two conference losses, both on the road, were by seven or fewer points.
“I thought we got good looks, we just didn’t make them,” Neal said, pointing out his team’s 7-of-26 shooting from 3-point range.
Wins by Green Hope and Lee County on Friday force a three-way tie for second in the league with Apex, though the Cougars defeated both those teams head-to-head. The Tri-9 will have one week between games as exams take up the first four days of next week.
Blake: 919-460-2606 or twitter.com/JMBpreps