It’s best to overlook the seven losses on the Apex boys basketball team’s résumé. Without that distraction, it’s easy to see why this team is playing for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state championship.
Defeating Millbrook 63-57 in Saturday’s 4A East final at Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum is equal parts validation of their preseason expectations and an eraser to the season’s opening 2-4 start.
With two senior guards, three athletic wings and six players who can knock down 3-pointers, Apex was never as bad as those first few games and every part as good as its current streak – winning 17 of its past 18 and knocking off the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams in consecutive rounds.
“Everybody in the locker room was just saying ‘Is this real? Is this real?,’ ” said Apex senior guard T.J. Evans, who was named MVP of the regional. “I didn’t feel like an underdog. I was telling people before the season started that we were the best team in the state. And to this day we’re up there.”
Apex (22-7), the No. 7 seed, faced an offensive juggernaut in No. 4 Millbrook (24-5) but held the Wildcats to 18 points less than its scoring average of 75 per game.
Millbrook, which had suffocated Panther Creek point guard Juan Munoz and forced 25 turnovers in the 4A regional semifinal, had no such luck against Apex.
Apex turned the ball over just 12 times and surrendered only six fast-break points.
“I think my guards are so good, they weren’t turning us over as they had probably had a lot of other teams,” Apex coach David Neal said.
Millbrook led 16-15 after the first quarter and widened it to 33-26 at halftime as the Wildcats began to attack Apex’s 2-3 zone with free-throw area jumpers from Faison Brock (3-of-5 shooting in the half) and offensive rebounds (11 at half).
But as Apex relied more on a 1-3-1 zone in the second half, it stopped most of Millbrook’s second chances – the Wildcats pulled down just seven total rebounds in the second half to finish with 30.
Then Apex started to chip away.
John Kitoko, who hit two from beyond the NBA 3-point line on the court, tied the game at 42 with his third 3-pointer with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
Apex took its first lead of the game on the first possession of the fourth quarter – an Evans (22 points) putback on his own miss.
Sophomore Ian Boyd (16 points), who was also named to the all-regional team, also came up with crucial driving layups.
“(Apex) got to the rim. And a lot of it was in transition,” Millbrook coach Scott McInness said. “We’ve got three seniors and a great group of guys. And this stings worse than anything.”
Millbrook tied it on a steal and coast-to-coast layup by Chris Clemons (12 points) but Evans answered with an “and-one” opportunity. Evans was 11-of-11 at the line.
Millbrook and Apex were tied at 56 with 1:21 left but Evans made it to the line four more times while Millbrook mustered just one Clemons free throw.
Also making the all-regional team were Millbrook’s Clemons and Rob Brown, Clayton’s Gary Clark and Panther Creek’s Gaqwez Hudson.
In 2008, Apex made the title game with a 19-11 record and finished runner-up. That was a team that got hot after Tim Plummer returned to the lineup in the second semester.
While these Cougars didn’t start nearly as slowly as those in 2008 they also had more pressure to live up to. Apex had high hopes after returning four starters from a team that won 20 games, made it to the third round and won the conference title.
The special feeling with this year’s group is that they’ve lived up to their own expectations.
It was the third straight nail-biter for Apex, which beat No. 2 Northern Durham at the buzzer in the third round and held off Clayton in overtime in the regional semifinal.
“We’re just ecstatic,” Neal said. “All these games have been close and we somehow pull them out.”
Apex’s opponent next Saturday will be decided on Sunday in Greensboro when Lake Norman and Greensboro Page play for the 4A West title. The West schedule was pushed back a day due to winter weather.