Alex Hunter couldn’t even jump for joy like his Leesville Road boys basketball teammates when the final horn sounded on Saturday. He had already run the gamut of emotions in what seemed like an eternity – it took almost 10 minutes for the last second to tick off the clock.
He instead walked over and hugged coach Russ Frazier and breathed a sigh of relief: Hunter had propelled Leesville Road to the N.C. High School Athletic Association state championship after all.
Leesville Road won Saturday’s East final 44-43 over South Central on Hunter’s 1-for-3 trip to the line with one second left.
“It was a roller coaster,” Frazier said.
The final possession started after South Central’s Tajh Riddick made the first and missed the second of a one-and-one trip to the line with 11.7 seconds to go.
Hunter took Leesville’s last shot, a 3-point attempt, and missed – but there was a foul called and one second was put back on the clock.
As the South Central fans howled in protest, Hunter stepped up to the line to potentially be the hero.
“I felt contact, but I didn’t think they would call it in that situation,” Hunter said. “I’m happy they did.”
He missed the first free throw, made the second and missed the third for the Pride (22-9).
South Central (27-2) got the rebound and called timeout with 0.7 left.
The first inbounds attempt was batted back out of bounds – make that 0.6 seconds.
The next one suffered the same fate – now there was 0.5 left.
Hunter kept wondering if the free throw he made had sealed a chance at the title or whether his misses had jeopardized it.
South Central got a look from midcourt, but it misfired.
“The game didn’t really come down to that last play,” South Central coach Chris Cherry said.
Hunter was relieved.
“When I missed that third (free throw), I was like ‘OK make sure, somehow, we get this win.’ I don’t know what was going through my mind, but I was just glad I made one,” Hunter said.
The Pride will play in the state championship on March 11 at either the Dean Smith Center or Reynolds Coliseum. It is the program’s second appearance in the state title.
The two teams went into halftime tied at 16-all. Leesville was shooting just 26.8 percent, but both teams settled down in the third. South Central fell behind 30-22 in the third quarter but rallied to make it 32-30 going into the fourth.
The two went back-and-forth in the fourth quarter.
Jalen Benjamin and Jonathan Mebane scored a game-high 18 points each. Leesville’s playoff run, as the 17 seed, has come with road and neutral court playoff wins by 4, 9, 3, 7 and 1 point each.
“Since Day One this was always the goal,” Hunter said.
South Central sophomore Shykeim Phillips didn’t shoot in the first half but got hot late and finished with a team-high 11 points. The Falcons, led by a number of underclassmen, were hoping to make it back to the title for the first time since finishing runner-up in 3A in 2011.
“We played tough. We didn’t make a bunch of shots, but we played tough. And at the end, they didn’t get but 44 (points) so our defense was real strong,” Cherry said. “People question our competition, as far as our defensive numbers, but I think we proved tonight we are a tremendous defensive basketball team, and we can guard anybody at any place in any time.”