Julius Barnes knew his team was calm – and so was he.
The Garner senior point guard had just watched as Charlotte Ardrey Kell completed its erase job on what had been an 18-point first-half deficit, taking its first lead of the night. Barnes quickly drove down court, pulled up and drained a 3-pointer, then hit another on Garner’s next possession to put the Trojans back in control for good.
Garner (28-1) completed its magical, dominant season, in which it avenged its only loss with a 70-64 state 4A boys’ basketball championship victory against the Knights before a heavily partisan Trojans crowd Saturday night at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
Barnes finished with a team-high 26 points and was named the game’s MVP.
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“We’ve really stayed pretty calm all season,” Barnes said. “I think that 3-pointer was just another sign of that. We needed to score, and we got a score.”
Barnes also did the job at the free throw line in the final minute, keeping the lead on at least two possessions down the stretch as the comeback attempt by Ardrey Kell came up short.
Standout senior Steven Santa Ana did his best to give the Knights their first state title. After a two-point first quarter, he rolled up 42 in the final three to set a Smith Center state high school championship scoring record (44).
“It was a tale of two cities or halves,” Garner coach Eddie Gray said. “The first half we got our tempo, and then they made a heck of a comeback in the second half. Santa Ana is going to be a heck of a freshman impact player at Elon.”
The Trojans had 22 first-quarter points and hit five of their first seven 3-point attempts. Barnes opened the game with a 24-footer, then Nick Kuhns hit another on Garner’s second possession. The lead grew to 12 points after just five minutes when Barnes hit his second 3 of the quarter.
“It just happened that way,” Barnes said. “We didn’t come in with the intention of taking that many 3s, but the shots were there, and we knocked them down.”
The Trojans ran their lead to 28-10 on a thunderous dunk by Jashaun Smith with 5:38 to play in the first half.
But Ardrey Kell (28-2) started to get its desired slower pace as the first half came to an end, cutting the lead to 12 at the break.
The Knights’ half-court defense forced Garner into mistakes in the third quarter, and Santa Ana led the charge with 19 points in the quarter, including a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to make it 47-45.
Ardrey Kell got its only lead of the game on a layup by Josh Freund with 5:37 to play.
The first of Barnes’ aforementioned 3-pointers followed nine seconds later and the Trojans never looked back.
Thomas Allen’s timely scoring drives and solid defense by Nick Kuhns against Santa Ana in a box-and-one defense helped Garner keep its lead during the final three minutes. Santa Ana didn’t hit a 3-pointer during the final 3:34.
The Trojans hit 9-of-12 free throws over the final 80 seconds.
Allen, Garner’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 16 points and Kuhns added 13.
“It means everything to go out like this,” Barnes said. “I didn’t know how I’d feel, whether I’d be sad or happy. And I can tell you, it’s an amazing, happy feeling.”