CARY — Pressure defense and lots of energy were points of emphasis for Middle Creek headed into the playoffs.
On Monday, the Mustangs’ pressure defense sparked a quick start and pushed them past visiting Southern Pines Pinecrest 60-54 and in the first round of the NCHSAA 4A state tournament.
“Starting quickly was definitely something we’ve focused on,” Middle Creek coach David Kushner said. “We wanted to pressure a lot, and it opened up some transition opportunities for us. And tonight, we finished a few more of those shots than we have in other games.”
The Mustangs forced five turnovers in the first three minutes of the game while building an 11-0 lead. Pinecrest’s first basket came at the 5:04 mark of the first quarter.
“Slow starts have been something we’ve struggled with at times this year,” Middle Creek senior guard Quentin Ray said. “So it was good to get off to that fast start. We came out with a lot of energy and it definitely got us going.”
The Mustangs led 16-7 after the first quarter before the Patriots settled down. In the second quarter, Pinecrest was able to slow the tempo and establish some consistency in its half court offense.
The last play of the first half, though, reenergized Middle Creek (19-8) and its fans, and at the same time stopped any momentum the Patriots might have built.
Down nine with 2.9 seconds left before halftime, the Patriots (14-10) attempted to inbound the ball under their own basket. Knowing his team had a couple of fouls to give, Kushner told his guys to go for the steal and not worry about fouling. They did, and Nate Otto intercepted the inbound pass at the top of the key and drove to the basket for a layup as the buzzer sounded.
Middle Creek led 33-22 at the half.
“[Nate’s] steal was a big play,” Kushner said.
In the third quarter, Pinecrest continued to battle and put together a mini-run. Midway through the period the Patriots had pulled to within five at 37-32, but some timely outside shooting pushed the Mustangs’ lead back to double digits heading into the fourth.
That hot shooting from deep continued for Middle Creek in the final quarter, specifically from Bryson Cousins. Cousins knocked two fourth quarter 3s. He finished with three for the game and 12 points. As a team, the Mustangs were 6-of-15 from behind the arc.
“Bryson’s shooting was a big lift for us in the second half,” Kushner said. “That made them extend the defense and it opened some things inside for us.”
With the reserves in late, the Patriots’ Adam Cummings knocked down two 3s on back-to-back possessions to cut the Middle Creek lead to six, but it was too late.
Quentin Jackson led all scorers with 18 points, while Ray added 13.
The ninth seeded Mustangs will travel to face No. 1 seed Durham Jordan on Wednesday.