Karon Blount and Shi’Chee Moore, both seniors, sat silently next to each other in the locker room. Dried tears were on their cheeks. In the tiny room inside the Crown Arena, the Millbrook Wildcats needed their coach, Scott McInnes, to console them.
“I appreciate the way you came back,” McInnes said. “You’ll always be a part of the Millbrook family.”
Millbrook’s season was over. New Hanover was slightly better. And each of the Wildcats knew the final score of the NCHSAA 4A Eastern Regional semifinal: New Hanover 42, Millbrook 40.
Blount and Moore, Millbrook’s best players, were the last of the teenagers to leave the locker room. The pair didn’t play its best.
New Hanover’s length and athleticism disrupted Millbrook’s rhythm on offense. In the second half, Blount fell to the floor diving for a loose ball.
He showed pain in his face.
Moore played with an illness, coughing multiple times after the whistle was blown.
In the final four minutes, though, Millbrook needed Blount and Moore.
New Hanover had pulled away and built a 12-point lead. Millbrook struggled on offense because New Hanover played a 2-3 zone.
“It was tough to penetrate because they were so lanky,” Blount said.
McInnes knew he had to give his two leaders a message, one that could renew optimism.
“Shi’Chee and Karon were really tired,” McInnes said. “But we had to go. We had to get focused.”
Millbrook (24-6) needed steals – and a great number of them, too – to put pressure on New Hanover (28-1). For those four minutes, the Wildcats played a furious style of basketball.
One steal led to two. Two led to three.
And after 18 turnovers by New Hanover, many in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats saw their opportunity – and New Hanover’s lead down to two points.
“Karon made a lot of great plays,” Moore said. “He created a lot of the turnovers and we capitalized on them.”
Blount’s biggest happened with 23 seconds left. He stole the ball, and in one motion, threw it forward. Moore caught the pass and saw nothing between him and the basket.
“I knew I had to score regardless of who was trying to block the shot,” Moore said. “I didn’t know if there was going to be a foul, but the shot went in.”
‘One more steal’
Moore made the acrobatic layup over two New Hanover defenders, both of whom were taller than he.
McInnes called a timeout with 19 seconds left. With the large crowd on its feet, McInnes made a bold move: He asked his team to get one more steal.
“One more steal,” McInnes told the Wildcats in the huddle, “and the game is ours!”
On every New Hanover pass, Millbrook went for the ball. New Hanover almost turned the ball over. But New Hanover guard Thomas Johnson made the game-winning layup with eight seconds left.
Moore put up a last-second shot. It fell short. The buzzer sounded.
“I thought we had them,” Blount said. “We tried to get one last stop … it just didn’t happen.”