APEX — Too quick. Too intense. Too physical under the basket.
Apex was all that and more in a 70-56 victory over Middle Creek on Friday night that gave the Cougars a share of the Tri-Nine 4A Conference boys’ basketball regular-season title.
Apex (16-8, 13-3 Tri-Nine) and Middle Creek (17-7, 13-3) split their two regular-season games but Apex earned the top seed in next week’s conference tournament because it went 2-0 against third-place Green Hope while Middle Creek went 1-1.
The Cougars gave their energetic home crowd plenty to cheer about from start to finish, seizing control early and never letting up in front of a packed house.
The score was tied at 3 when the Cougars came up with steals on three straight Middle Creek possessions and T.J. Evans converted each into a layup. It was 14-9 at the end of the first quarter and 33-24 at the end of the first half.
“I thought we got off to a great start and T.J. Evans set the tone for us,” Apex coach David Neal said. “He was really attacking and getting to the rim and finishing. … I just thought he was a great leader for us tonight.”
Evans, a junior guard, penetrated to the basket and knocked in outside jumpers to finish with a game-high 22 points. But he had plenty of help on senior night from another pair of underclassmen.
Jon Jones, a 6-foot-6 sophomore with plenty of spring, scored 16 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked seven shots. The Cougars had 11 blocks as a team.
Jones, who moved to Apex from Texas, had been with the Cougars for only about a week when the teams met at Middle Creek in mid-January, a game the Mustangs won 64-57.
“I thought Jon Jones just dominated the paint,” Neal said. “He was awesome. I should have played him in the first game. He has been working his tail off in practice. We are mighty fortunate he moved in.”
Middle Creek coach David Kushner also praised the Cougars’ young post player.
“He was the difference for them,” Kushner said. “My big man, Fred Iruafemi, who has had a really good year, I don’t think he answered the physicality of the game.
“I thought they were more physical than us and that is usually our calling card. That was disappointing.”
Freshman wing player Ian Boyd also had 17 points for Apex.
It was a well-rounded effort for the Cougars, who were aggressive on defense in mixing both a zone and a man-to-man and never let their intensity wane.
“I wanted it for the seniors tonight,” Evans said. “They are awesome and deserved it. I wanted to do everything I could to get them that (title).
“My biggest worry was us keeping the lead. We had a couple of problems with that this year when we would do that in the first half and then not do it in the second half. I just wanted to make sure that we kept the same composure, the same speed throughout the game.”
The Cougars kept the pedal to the floor in the third quarter, pushing the lead to 12 points at 29-37 when Boyd completed a driving three-point play with 2:28 left in the period.
Middle Creek got no closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Quentin Jackson led the Mustangs with 16 points, Quinton Ray had 14 and Austin Oglesby had 11.
Middle Creek had won nine of its past 10 games coming into the final regular-season game.
“They play well on their home court always,” Kushner said of Apex. “Their effort and their intensity and their play were exactly what we expected.
“We were 8-5 at the end of (December). We had really taken a lot of steps forward. Tonight, I thought we reverted back to all negativity of that time. I hope it was just one of those nights. It’s very disappointing to have one of those nights on the biggest game of the year.”
For Apex, the feeling was the exact opposite.
“We really wanted it bad tonight,” Neal said. “They took it to us at their place and we were a game behind them. When they hang the banner up there, it won’t say a tie. … I’m really happy for our seniors and our whole team.
“We’ve come a long way. The first game of the year was at home and we couldn’t get in the locker room because the key broke. Leesville Road beat us by 27 points and it was pretty dire. I’m mighty proud of this team.”