Minutes after Cary junior guard Donte Tatum left the locker room with his right shoulder wrapped up tight, Imps head coach Allan Gustafson made it quite clear who the biggest contributor to his team’s 62-40 victory over Middle Creek on Thursday night in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state playoffs was.
“Our trainer is the most valuable player,” Gustafson said with a huge smile. “Eric Hall did a fantastic job working on Donte. He and their staff are the best around.”
It was doubtful that Tatum would play against the Southwest Wake Conference rival Mustangs after a terrible spill in the No. 2-ranked Imps’ 78-59 first-round victory over Wake Forest on Tuesday saw him crash to the floor following a dunk, landing on his head and shoulder.
“This morning, I didn’t think I was going to play,” said Tatum, who would lead all scorers with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting. “The trainers gave me the confidence to go out there tonight.”
Cary, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, improved to 28-1 and will host No. 25 Leesville Road on Saturday night at 7 in the third round. The Pride (16-12) defeated No. 9 Heritage 60-57 with a buzzer-beating 3 to advance.
No. 17 Middle Creek wrapped up at 16-11.
Things started poorly for Tatum, as he missed his first three shots – the same total he missed in shooting 19 of 22 in a regular-season sweep of the Mustangs. And Cary did not score until 3 minutes and 51 seconds were left in the first quarter.
But the score was just 4-2 Middle Creek.
“We had to be up much more than that,” Mustangs head coach David Kushner said. “We just collectively as a team have not been shooting well at all. … We took good shots tonight, but we just were not able to take advantage.”
Middle Creek led 9-6 after a 3-point bucket by Shammond Hicks with 2:02 left in the opening period. It would be the only trey of the game for the Mustangs in 14 attempts. It put the team’s long-range woes at 6 of 53 the last four contests.
Cary’s up-tempo offense got a jump start with three blocked shots by senior forward Cory Gensler that all led to easy scores on the other end – including a dunk by Tatum for his first points. Eventually, the Imps scored the final 10 points of the first quarter and eventually stretched the run to 19-5 in taking a 27-13 lead with 4:01 left.
Cary led 33-21 at the break and it stayed in double digits the rest of the way.
Jay Hicks had 18 points and seven rebounds for Cary, while Gensler had eight points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Demetrius Bastian led the Mustangs with 15 points and seven boards.