Southern Vance has been the sole owner of the key to unlocking Franklinton’s dominance this season in the Northern Carolina Conference boys basketball standings.
Franklinton has dropped just three games in league action this year, with all of them coming against the Raiders – including Southern Vance’s 59-57 victory over the top-seeded Red Rams in Friday’s NCC Tournament championship game at Bunn.
“(Franklinton) has good shooters and so do we,” said Southern Vance guard Corey Baldwin, who topped the Raiders with a game-high 22 points. “They have some good big men, and so do we. Every game we have had with them was back-and-forth – we just found a way to get it done.”
In the girls finals, No. 1 seed and host Bunn kept its seven-year conference title streak intact with a 60-41 pullaway decision over Warren County.
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The boys squads took the stage first, with Franklinton looking to live up to its league-leading billing, albeit against a Southern Vance club that the Red Rams had yet to break through against in 2015-16.
The Red Rams (19-8) soared ahead early by a 13-4 margin, only to see the hot-shooting Raiders (19-7) rally to tie the score at 17-17 at the close of the first period.
Southern Vance would remain in the lead – by as much as six points – before Franklinton clawed back in front at 52-51 on Semaj McCowan’s two free throws with 2:45 left in the fourth quarter.
Franklinton had the ball and a two-point cushion with just under two minutes to play, but the Red Rams missed a shot and turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions – and each miscue led to a Southern Vance basket.
Southern surged ahead to stay on Marcus Harrison’s follow at the 52-second mark. Harrison would later add two free throws before Zamari Ellis all but sealed the victory with a freebie with seven ticks left that pushed the Raiders’ advantage to 59-55.
“We had some good looks down the stretch that didn’t fall,” said Franklinton coach Terrence Horne. “At tournament time, it’s all about finishing and who makes the plays. (Southern Vance) came up with some big baskets. We’ve played a lot of close games this year that have been decided by two or three trips down the court at the end. We had a couple of trips that didn’t go our way.”
Despite the loss, Franklinton, which claimed its first NCC regular season crown since 2006, will remain the No. 1 seed out of the NCC for the upcoming N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A playoffs. Southern Vance will enter as a No. 2 seed – a lofty status that didn’t seem to be a possibility back when the Runnin’ Raiders suffered through a slow start to their conference schedule.
“We were 0-3 (in the NCC) and everybody started underestimating us,” Baldwin said. “We just kept pushing and trying to get to the top. I’m just so happy we got this win.”
Darion Green was Franklinton’s leading scorer with 13 points, followed by Ricky Person with 11.
It’s been 2009 since Bunn lost a girls conference tournament game, and the Wildcats (21-3) have only dropped a pair of regular season NCC showdowns during that successful span.
Wildcats coach Matt Keith made sure he reminded his players of that streak in the locker room before Friday’s meeting with Warren County.
“I talked to the girls about the history we have at this event and what we were playing for,” Keith said. “The tournament was cancelled the last two years, but we won it four times in a row before that. We wanted to keep that going. I was looking for something for us to play for.’’
In Keith’s estimation, Bunn may have come out too tight, while a motivated Warren County (18-8) crew used an effective inside-outside offense to move ahead 11-8 after the initial frame.
But the Wildcats opened the second stanza with a 7-0 spurt that featured five points from senior veteran Precious Walker, including a long-range trifecta.
Walker and teammate Bernadette Cooke, both backcourt standouts, combined for 14 transition-induced points during the decisive period, which ended with Bunn in command at 26-19.
“We had some early turnovers that hurt us,” Cooke said. “We calmed down after that. We became more aggressive on defense. We just had to go out and play our game. If we do that, we are going to do well.’’
The Wildcats were hanging on at 42-36 early in the fourth quarter before Cooke nailed a threeball that kick-started an 18-5 uprising to end the contest. Walker converted six-of-six free throws down the stretch as Bunn continued to extend its advantage.
“We feel like we are in good shape if we can get up by 10 points in the fourth period,” Keith said. “With our guards, we know we can hold the ball and make free throws.”
Cooke (24) and Walker (17) combined for 41 points for Bunn, which will host a playoff game this coming Tuesday.
Samaria Lynch, with 16 points, paced the third-seeded Eagles, who will once again qualify for the postseason under long-time coach Shannon Jones.