It was a scene not that different from any of the other 28 postgame locker rooms Garner had occupied during the 2014-15 season. There were laughs, game memories shared and a few boxes of pizzas set to be devoured in a few minutes.
The locker room was nice but a little cramped. In fact, it was probably smaller than most of the ones Garner had spent its game nights in during the regular seasons at high schools across the Triangle area.
There was no raucous celebration in the confines of the locker room at the Smith Center as Garner’s boys basketball team gathered after winning the NCHSAA 4A boys basketball state championship. Just a fun, relaxed group soaking in the accomplishments of the night.
It could have been a Tuesday night at West Johnston or a Friday night at Middle Creek, but it wasn’t — it was the biggest game ever played in the history of the Garner boys basketball program. And everything that was going on was completely normal.
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And that’s the thing that stuck with me most this season about how this team was different than any other high school basketball team I’ve been around. They didn’t celebrate things along the way any more than they needed to be celebrated.
No game situation was too big for them, even when faced with a challenge they hadn’t faced to that point in the season.
“This is just a special and unique group,” said Garner assistant coach and Carolina legend Donald Williams. “No moment or situation has been too big for these guys all season.”
It’s a sense that wasn’t lost on Garner head coach Eddie Gray, previously known as much for his expressiveness on the sidelines as his team’s ability to consistently win games, who took on his team’s personality, even during the lead up to the championship game.
“He was normal,” said Garner senior co-captain Julius Barnes of Gray. “He was relaxed with us during the week and really nervous before the game. But he made sure he kept us loose and confident in ourselves all week.
“He just told us before the game to make sure we went out with a bang.”
Barnes and fellow starting guard Thomas Allen epitomized that Trojan calmness as well as anyone. Allen, a smooth shooting veteran sophomore (if there’s any such thing) as you’ll ever see, who resembles and shoots like NBA star Ray Allen always seemed to know when it was his time to score in the playoffs.
The four-year varsity veteran Barnes, meanwhile, played more confidently than ever. He knew when to distribute and when it was time — as it often was in the state finals — to score.
Barnes knew his team was talented throughout the season but he wasn’t sure what their potential was until two weeks ago.
“I realized after regionals when I looked back,” he said. “How I saw my team come back against Millbrook, who everybody thought would be the state champs. That’s when I knew we had a state championship worthy team.”
Seven nights after that win, the Trojans were state champions and it all seemed completely normal.
Five Things I’ll Always Remember
• The confident shooting stroke early of Nick Kuhns, who drilled two 3-pointers to help Garner establish its lead. Kuhns’ isn’t Garner’s best 3-point threat but he sure looked it early.
• Garner’s players hoisting veteran coach Eddie Gray on their shoulders during the state championship celebration. And Gray hoisting the state championship trophy high with a completely beaming smile.
• The play of Ardrey Kell’s Steven Santa Ana. We were told he was a deadly shooter. Who knew how great he was on drives to the basket as well? His 44 points were a state championship game record in the Dean Dome.
• Garner coaching legend Hal Stewart, who coached the Trojans to the 1987 football state championship, walking into the Trojan locker room and without a word uttered, planting a kiss on the left cheek of Garner coach Eddie Gray.
• The two most popular Trojan basketball teams — the adaptive physical education students and the Garner boys team — breaking it down together during the March Madness basketball skills event on Friday at the school, which took the place of a pep rally.