They were the essence of a team.
When considering individuals, Apex’s boys basketball team didn’t appear that imposing. None of the players have Division I basketball offers. A 2-4 start to the year made some wonder whether they could even win the conference.
But together, their teamwork became a match-up nightmare for opponents, and they proved to be the best in the state, winning the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A championship.
Don’t let the 23-7 overall record fool you; the Cougars never felt like underdogs even as they won four straight nail-biters in the playoffs.
In the third round, playing at one-loss Northern Durham, an improbable buzzer-beater from Majid Raji – T.J. Evans had lost the ball and Raji collected it with only enough time to throw up a 12-foot baseline jumper – gave Apex the 64-63 win.
In the fourth round, Apex used overtime to overcome Clayton and phenom Gary Clark, who had 36 points and 19 rebounds, 79-75.
In the East final, Apex meticulously unraveled a powerful Millbrook team 63-57.
In the championship, they came back from an eight-point halftime deficit to beat Lake Norman 62-59.
Coach David Neal was the first to say his senior guards were the main reason for the success. T.J. Wells might be too small for college recruiters, but Neal saw him as an extra assistant coach. T.J. Evans, a three-time conference player of the year, was remarkable all year as usual.
Forwards Ian Boyd, Majid Raji and Malik Williams could score inside and outside. Boyd, the championship MVP, defended every position and scored against all sizes of players.
Reserve John Kitoko and Davis Dupree gave the Cougars six players who were threats from 3-point land.
The team won 18 of its last 19 games and knocked out the East’s No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams in consecutive rounds and somehow didn’t miss a beat when center Jon Jones – the only regular taller than 6-foot-2 – was stricken with a rare illness late in the season.