Apex coach Isaac Bristol saw his team play its best basketball of the year as the regular season wound down. The scenario was one any coach would want to see. The Cougars were peaking at the right time, and had a shot to contend for the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference title and possibly earn a playoff home game.
But that conference tournament never happened, as icy conditions closed schools leading to canceled conference tournaments and a delayed start to the state playoffs for area teams. The break gave the team’s momentum time to settle and the No. 17-seed Cougars’ season came to a close in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs Saturday with a 67-50 loss at No. 16 Broughton.
“I was really worried that the layoff would impact that enthusiasm,” Bristol said. “Everybody’s in the same boat, but I thought what we did best was thrown off a great deal.”
The Cougars held a short walk-through, shoot-around and film session Saturday morning before heading to Broughton, but the Caps looked undeterred by the weather break, starting quickly and never letting up.
Broughton used an inside-outside attack to keep Apex of balance, stalling the Cougars in the opening minutes. Senior N.C. State commit Kaila Ealey penetrated the Apex defense with ease, finishing with a game-high 30 points before leaving the game with five minutes remaining with a twisted ankle. If the Cougars defense collapsed to try to stop Ealey, Broughton junior Katie Wadsworth was waiting behind the arc. Wadsworth scored 20 points for the Caps, including 3 of 6 from 3-point range.
The duo combined for all but three of Broughton’s first-half points, as the Caps started the game on a 13-4 run and led 37-22 by halftime.
“As a defense you have to kind of pick your poison and decide are you going to collapse on Kaila and leave Katie open,” Broughton coach Brad McCorkle said. “Today it was just beautiful to watch them both score over 20 points and work as well as they did.”
Despite the early lead, Broughton knew not to get too comfortable against the Cougars. The Caps lost their season opener on a last-second shot to Apex after leading by 11 points in the fourth quarter.
“The thing that stands out about Apex is their size. ... So we had to use the advantage we have, which is speed, and try to get the ball up and down the floor and that seemed to help,” McCorkle said. “The thing we’ve been talking about all week is finishing.”
Broughton (18-6, 12-2 Cap Eight) extended its lead to 23 points heading into the fourth quarter.
Apex seniors Mia Castagnero and Meredith Chapman led the Cougars with 12 and 9 points, respectively. They are part of a class that has helped turn the Apex program around from a 7-15 finish their freshman year. Apex finished the season 16-8 overall and 11-3 in SWAC league play this year.
“The seven seniors that we’re graduating are just a phenomenal group of kids, and that’s one of the biggest things,” Bristol said. “They were fun to coach. ... We built the program this season and a lot of the underclassmen got a chance. We had four sophomores up and a few juniors, so I’m excited for them having a chance to learn in the system and hopefully their standards have risen and they understand that we play for championships. We want to set the bar high, but we want to work our tails off and go get it.”
Broughton is scheduled to travel to No. 1 Millbrook, a 58-18 winner over No. 32. Overhills Saturday, in the second round on Monday.
With the short turnaround, McCorkle said he hopes Ealey will be ready to go in the second round. Both of Broughton’s conference losses came against Millbrook this year.
“We just haven’t played very well against them this year,” McCorkle said. “We played at Southeast Raleigh and won this year, and I think they’re amazing team, but we just haven’t played our best ball (against Millbrook). I think if there’s some sort of mental hump, I don’t know what it is, but we’ve got to get over it and Monday’s our chance.”
Broughton’s boys, seeded No. 8, followed the game with a 67-38 win over No. 25 Southern Alamance to advance. Jerome Robinson led the Caps with 18 points. Jalen Burnett led the Patriots with 17.