Trying to find the right words, Cary coach Allan Gustafson had to paraphrase Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood in retrospect,” he said.
It will take some time to digest the Imps’ season – full of late-game heroics, record-setting crowds and heights unparalleled since 1954 – as well as its conclusion.
Cary fell to Charlotte Catholic 49-46 in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A boys basketball championship Saturday in the Dean Smith Center in heart-wrenching fashion.
The West champion Cougars overcame a 19-point lead midway through the third quarter and outscored Cary 20-6 in the fourth.
“Whoever wrote the end to this script should be fired. We need a new script writer and a retake on that last scene,” Gustafson said tongue-in-cheek. “The movie didn’t end the way it was supposed to for the guys in green.”
Cary (31-2) ran out to a 19-8 lead in the first quarter, 25-12 at halftime and 40-26 after three quarters.
Yet Charlotte Catholic (32-1), desperate for a comeback, started forcing turnovers with a half-court trap and chipped away at the lead without letting Cary take many shots. The game was tied at 44-all when game MVP Josh Brodowicz hit a fall-away 3-pointer with 2:42 to play.
Cary’s Cory Gensler, the Imps’ Most Outstanding Player award-winner, hit a hanging jump shot to take a 46-44 lead at the 1:59 mark, and Cary didn’t score again. He fouled out with 33 seconds left as Catholic took a 47-46 lead.
Cary’s Donte Tatum got to the line with seven seconds left, but missed both.
Catholic held Cary to just 2-of-5 shooting in the final quarter, and the Imps were an uncharacteristic 2-of-7 (3-of-10 for the game) from the free throw line. Cary missed its last five free throws – a possible three-point play, the front end of two one-and-ones and the two with seven seconds left – over a four-minute span.
“A basketball game is 32 minutes, not 24. We played really well the first 24 minutes and really for the first time all year I thought we just lost our poise in the fourth quarter,” Gustafson said.
Meanwhile, the Cougars were 8-of-11 from the field in the fourth, which still only pulled their shooting percentage up to 34.8 for the game because of how awful it had began.
The Cougars shot just 4-of-26 (15.4 percent) in the first half and didn’t score a field goal in the second quarter until the 2:44 mark. They had 10 first-half turnovers and were 0-for-10 from 3-point land.
Nothing seemed to go right for Catholic until its half-court trap sparked the comeback in the fourth quarter.
“We did not recognize it well on the first possession,” Gustafson said. “I really thought that move changed the momentum of the game.”
Catholic’s MOP Bailey McKee had seven points off the bench. Only Brodowicz had more for the Cougars and Jimmy Abate also had seven. Catholic is the first team since the 1960s to win a football and boys basketball title in the same academic year.
Cary’s Jay Hicks had 10 points in his final game. Gensler, the school’s all-time leading scorer, had 10 with six rebounds. Tatum had 11 with six rebounds and senior Phil King added seven points off the bench.
Cary was making its ninth appearance in the state championship game. On hand were players from the 1954 champions – like Guy Mendenhall and former NCHSAA commissioner Charlie Adams, 1994 runners-up and 1995 state champions.
Not since 1954 (a 31-1 year) had Cary won 31 games in a season.
When the Imps took the floor, almost three-fourths of the Smith Center’s lower bowl were filled with Kelly green.
This year’s team united a school that had run upon hard times in athletics as district lines shifted often. The way they played – with humility and togetherness – made fans of many.
Cory Gensler’s heroics and Tatum’s flashy plays were the headliners, but the Imps’ success was predicated on how Hicks defended and rebounded, how Darrion Burnett made the right plays from the point, Kyle Gensler coming up with timely 3s and help defense and how players like King, Philip Blackley, Elijah Idlett and Jeff Fortuny made the most of their minutes.
Cary went 24-0 in the regular season, 16-0 in the conference and won five straight playoff games – the last three in thrilling fashion with two overtime games (one, a 19-point comeback and the other a buzzer-beater). In the season’s final 16 games, they won in overtime four times.
“They made us proud to be Imps again,” Gustafson said, fighting back tears. “They rallied a community. They won the hearts and minds of everyone who came out and watched them.”
Gustafson emphasized that the championship should not take away from the season. He has always stressed the celebration of the journey.
“We cannot allow that one tough stretch of basketball to disproportionately impact what this team has accomplished this year. They are state champions in my heart,” Gustafson said. “We may not have the trophy that says state champions, but where it counts the most – when you impact people, when you affect people and when you matter to people – they’re state champions.”