The once boisterous student section had gone silent. Facing a 16-point deficit entering the fourth quarter after being battered relentlessly by fifth-seeded New Hanover’s inside presence, it looked bleak for the 1-seed Cary boys basketball team.
But Charlie Adams Gymnasium had a little magic left in it. A full-court Cary press put New Hanover into a daze, and the Imps hit shot after shot. After shot. After shot. And the crowd was deafening again.
Cary even led with seconds left in regulation, but the game went into overtime. New Hanover didn’t make another shot.
Cary held the Wildcats scoreless in the extra period to win 58-49, moving to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A boys basketball East final on Saturday against Garner. The comeback for the ages, kick-started with an 18-0 Cary run, was complete.
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“(Coach Allan Gustafson said) ‘Keep fighting, keep pushing and don’t give up,’” Darrion Burnett said. “On the court, we weren’t losing, not in the Imp Dome.”
It’s a night they’ll be talking about in Cary – especially those fortunate enough to get a ticket to the sold-out game – for a long time.
In a season of emotional, last-second wins, this one ranks tops for the 30-1 Imps.
“Our crowd lifted us up, this is No. 1, this one goes before (the) Apex (win this year),” Cary junior Donte Tatum said.
Former players who were scattered all around the crowd made a beeline for Gustafson, the Imps’ coach since 1998-99.
“I’ve got 20 peoples’ sweat on my shirt right now, all those hugs,” Gustafson said. “Considering the context of this game, fourth round of the state playoffs, it’s No. 1 considering everything.”
Kyle Gensler hit a 3 with 5:11 to go that narrowed the score to 45-32. He kept the momentum going with an offensive rebound and assist a minute later to his brother, Cory, that brought the sold-out crowd at the Imp Dome back to life.
Captain Cory Gensler, who was held to three points in the first half, started rolling. Tatum assisted him 30 seconds later and it was a whole new game.
With 57 seconds to go in regulation, Cary took its first lead since the first quarter, 47-45, on a Tatum “and-1” conversion.
But New Hanover’s Freddie Taylor hit a 3 to retake the lead, 48-47.
Cary’s Jay Hicks – who had four rebounds in the last minute – hit a free throw to tie it up with 10 seconds to go, 48-all.
New Hanover’s final shot of regulation airballed, and Cary had all the momentum.
New Hanover was shell-shocked, too stunned to find the basket in overtime.
“Show me a better high school environment than the Imp Dome right there, nobody went home or left their seats when we were down 18,” Gustafson said. “We didn’t want to let them down.”
New Hanover scored just eight points in the fourth quarter thanks in large part to Cary’s press.
“(Coach Gustafson said) ‘keep fighting, keep pushing and don’t give up,” Darrion Burrnett said.
“On the court, we weren’t losing, not in the Imp Dome.”
“We took it to the heart, we worked on it in practice and knew defense wins championships, we had that lockdown defense,” Tatum said.
After a shoulder injury took Tatum out just 36 seconds into the game, he came back to finish with 19 points, five rebounds and team-high four assists.
Cory Gensler finished with 22 points – 12 of which came from behind the arc – and four rebounds.
“I said keep fighting, that’s the main thing, we went old-school baseline to baseline and that got us some turnovers,” Gustafson said.