Unless they meet in the conference tournament or state playoffs, Friday was the last time Cary visited the present-day Apex High gymnasium, nicknamed the Cougar Den by fans over the years.
The old rivals went out with a bang, and the Cougars made sure to defend their den.
In the girls game, Apex needed a final-seconds 3 from Kim Schuh at the end of the first overtime to extend the game before winning 48-42 in two overtimes.
In the boys’ game, a hot-shooting Apex team defeated Cary 77-62 to also earn a season split against their longtime rival in the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference.
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“I didn’t want to talk about it before the game, I didn’t want to tell them ‘This is the last time we play Cary in here,’ but it meant a ton to me for us play well and hopefully come out on top – and we did, fortunately for us,” Apex coach David Neal said.
Schuh’s 3 came after an offensive rebound in a frantic few seconds at the end of the first overtime. Cary tried a game-winner as time expired but it rimmed out, and the Cougars (10-5, 6-2) took all that momentum into the next overtime to prevail.
“I didn’t even think of the score. I just got the ball in my hands and I was confident while I shot it,” Schuh said. “It went in, and I went crazy, the team went crazy, it was unbelievable.”
Cary (10-6, 7-3) tried to get the ball to 6-foot-5 center Tamari Key, but she was well-defended by much of the night by 6-foot senior Sam Michel, a Northeastern recruit. Apex also negated some of Key’s defensive presence by driving at her and kicking out to open shooters.
“I think the biggest thing that I learned is that we can handle pressure,” Apex coach Charli Michael said. “Attacking is one of the things that we do best. It creates opportunities whether you get the shot or you kick out. When you have all five people on the court that are a threat, I think it’s hard for teams defend.”
Apex is still a game behind Cary for the SWAC lead. The two split head-to-head meetings this year.
“We just need to work more offensively, and that’s the main point I’m taking out of this,” Cary coach Pat Daly said. “We struggled more offensively than I had hoped but we played well defensively.”
Apex (8-6, 6-2) didn’t play in a holiday tournament, so the last time it had taken the court was Dec. 20, a lopsided home loss to Panther Creek. Friday’s return to the court was nothing of the sort.
“It’s the proudest I’ve been of them all year,” Neal said.
The return of point guard Carl Dean, who was out with injury, helped the Cougars break the 70-point mark for the first time this year. Dean ran the offense and the Cougars ended the night with 11 3-pointers, led by senior Eric Fox’s 32 points on 6-of-9 shooting from outside the arc. Apex scored 31 in the second quarter alone for a 41-37 halftime lead.
“I came out looking for my shot. It felt good, so I just kept shooting it,” Fox said. “My teammates helped me. They set screens. I usually pop into the lane and pop out, I post up, go out to the wing. I try to keep (the defense) off-balance so they don’t know what I’m doing.”
Cary (9-7, 6-3) is still in the thick of it for the conference title, but back-to-back losses – Cary fell to Middle Creek on Thursday – in as many days hurt. The Imps are hoping for good news next week on center Phillip Blackley, who was injured in the John Wall Holiday Invitational.
“We’re just trying to get by until Phillip Blackley gets back,” Cary coach Allan Gustafson said. “We struggled defending the post, we struggled rebounding. The kids played as hard as they can, but it’s hard when you’re outsized like that.”