Robbie Kennedy has served as Southern Nash’s head basketball coach for 14 years and has seen every Big East 3A hoops powerhouse during that span.
So when Kennedy says that Northern Nash is far and away the most talented team in the league this season, there is a measure of credibility that comes with his words.
“From what I’ve seen so far, Northern is the best,” Kennedy said. “They have so many guys who can play, and they can come at you from a variety of positions. Coming into (Tuesday), I thought that Northern Nash was the best team, and I didn’t see anything to change that feeling.”
But as Northern Nash coach Henry Drake knows, there are no guarantees in the balanced Big East – an assessment that was once also proven correct Tuesday as the Knights won 80-69.
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“We hear that we are the team to beat, but I feel like this is the best 3A conference in the state,” Drake said. “You have the best coaches and players. You are going to be challenged every night. If you don’t come every night and play with energy, passion and intensity, you can lose.”
Against the Firebirds, Northern Nash got off to a slow start but rebounded with a 25-7 surge in the second period as seven different Knights scored during the frame. On the other side of the court, Southern Nash struggled to score – a tendency that is nothing new for Kennedy’s club this season.
Southern Nash scored just one point over a span of 5:39 and went to intermission trailing by a 43-26 margin.
But Wilson, in a sign of things to come, drained a trio of 3s in the first two minutes of the third stanza as the Firebirds began to gain some momentum.
“After making the first shot (in the second half), I kind of felt it,” Wilson said. “Then the second shot went in and then the third. I just kept playing hard, and the shots kept falling.”
Southern got within 52-47 in the closing minute of the frame before Spragley scored on a drive and inside factor Darquez Flower followed with a basket in the paint to close out the quarter.
Spragley then collected eight points in the first 2:09 of the fourth quarter, and Northern Nash had re-established control of the contest at 64-51.
“We weren’t very focused at the start,’’ Spragley said. “If we stay together and remain focused, we will be OK. It’s really important for us to win the conference this year.’’
Ironically, one of the biggest steps the Knights took this year was after a setback in the first round of the Bunn Christmas Tournament at the end of December.
Northern Nash was coming off a huge victory at the Nash County Holiday Tourney and followed up those heroics with a road decision one day later at D.H. Conley.
The Knights appeared to be on a roll heading into Bunn – but their momentum was squashed with a first-round defeat against hot-shooting Wake Forest.
That loss meant Northern Nash’s best possible tournament finish was fifth place, so it would be understandable if the Knights played out the string to get ready for the opening of their Big East 3A slate in January.
Drake didn’t see it that way, so he held a team meeting after the opening round – and Northern responded with a pair of impressive victories to close out the event while claiming the No. 5 spot.
“Sometimes, a loss can be almost like a win,” Drake said. “We learned so much from that loss (versus Wake Forest). After our meeting, our guys understood what we needed to do to be ready to be a contender in the league. That refreshed us and we have gotten better every game.”
Kennedy is still looking for that type of bump from his club, which has depth and scoring diversity – but not much size. Southern’s biggest curse – and its biggest asset – is that different players have the capability to step up and score every night.
“We only have one guy averaging in double figures (Darius Edmundson at 11 ppg),” Kennedy said. “But the problem is that you have to figure out who is going to be hot that night. Somebody can have a big game and then not score much the next game. We need to be able to find some consistency.”