Russ Frazier wasn’t surprised his Leesville Road boys basketball team played a top-seeded Cary to a four-point game.
Neither was Imps coach Allan Gustafson Jr.
The coaches wouldn’t classify the Pride’s playoff run as a Cinderella one – it was expected. Whatever you call it, it came to an end when Cary knocked Leesville out in the third round the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs, 54-50, on Saturday.
The contest was tied at 50 with 1:16 left to play before the Imps (29-1) leaned on opportunities at the free-throw line. Their last four points were free throws.
Cary’s leading scorer Donte Tatum, who finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds after scoring just three in the first half, went 7-of-8 from the line in the fourth quarter.
The Imps junior forward is one half the “fire and ice” tandem that has fueled Cary to a one-loss season. The other, senior Cory Gensler, scored 19 points and dished out six assists to help overcome a road-tested Pride club.
“We beat them in overtime over there, so obviously we know they’re a good team,” Gustafson said. “They play in such a tough league. When you play quality competition every night, that prepares you for postseason play. We knew this was going to be a really tough game.”
Through a series of lead changes and ties, Leesville Road (16-13) stayed afloat. Cary’s biggest lead was six in the third quarter.
Before that, the Pride relied on its slasher Alex Smith, Ben Zemonek on the boards and a defense that at one point prevented Cary from a shot attempt for more than one minute.
“They were doing a good job of mixing up defenses,” Gustafson said. “They were playing matchup zone, and, plus, they were playing man-to-man. I thought we did a better job against the matchup zone as the game wore on.”
Leesville nearly took a halftime lead, but Tatum stole the hope with a 3-pointer off the dribble in the closing seconds of the opening half. It was his first make of the night, and he made his next three shots after the break.
After leading by four to start the final quarter the Imps clung to the margin. Hunter, who led the game with 24 points, sank a much-needed 3-pointer with 3:36 left to play, putting the Pride down 45-43. He hit another from the wing to force a one-point game.
Pride freshman Jalen Benjamin made it 50-50 with 1:16 showing. He released a puff of relief from his cheeks after he made the second of two free throws to tie the game.
Cary clinched a 53-50 lead in fewer than 20 seconds remaining, and Leesville called a quick timeout when Benjamin brought the ball across halfcourt.
A couple of Pride shots didn’t fall, and a dagger by Darrion Burnette did. His only point of the game was the free throw that provided the final margin.
“This isn’t a moral-victory situation,” Leesville coach Russ Frazier said. “Cary’s got a great team. A four-point game now, we played them to overtime before. You can throw the records out the window. ...We played the toughest teams, so there are no moral victories at this time.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan