Nothing about the N.C. High School Athletic Association basketball playoffs has been normal.
Snow, ice, postponements, an absolute dearth of practice time: those are the issues the teams still vying for a state championship have endured.
Maybe that’s why Garner’s boys are still around: the lack of normalcy. The Trojans, who defeated South Central Pitt 75-64 Thursday night at the Crown Coliseum to advance to their first regional final in the 26-year run of coach Eddie Gray, had a whale of a day before the game tipped off.
With another ice storm bearing down on the Triangle, the team was told to leave earlier than planned for its game and would be required to stay in Fayetteville afterward to try to keep the team out of harm’s way. So the players left school without packing for an overnight trip.
“It’s been a very unusual tournament, but these kids have been very resilient,” Gray said. “I’ve been proud of how well these kids have played under adverse conditions.”
Garner (26-1) will meet either Millbrook or Fayetteville Seventy-First for the eastern regional 4A championship at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Crown Coliseum.
Once the game started, Garner created some challenges of the self-inflicted variety.
After senior point guard Julius Barnes opened the second half with eight straight points to break a tie, fouls became an issue. Barnes picked up his fourth late in the third, as did fellow starter Alex Reed. Standout junior forward Jashaun Smith played much of the second half with three fouls.
Barnes, who has played in more than 100 career varsity games, sat out the last two minutes of the third quarter and the first four of the fourth.
Still, Garner led by as many as 10 in the third before South Central (23-4) cut the gap to 48-42 near the end of the quarter.
“We usually do play better the second half,” Barnes said. “We wanted to come out with a burst. Run our offense and score off of our defense when we could.”
The Trojans turned to their depth to survive. Junior Andrew Abrom had seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter as Garner had an answer each time South Central temporarily cut into its lead, often with a 3-pointer.
On offense, the Trojans handled the pressure defense with Thomas Allen, a sophomore, and junior reserve Javonte Sims doing most of the ball-handling. Freshman Kenyon Burt had a key bucket down the stretch, a layup on a break after South Central had closed to within 63-56 with 2 minutes, 42 seconds to play.
“The thing we talked about in the locker room was how well we helped each other out, played as a team,” Gray said. “Julius got in a little foul trouble tonight. A kid named Javonte Sims came in and did a heck of a job. He was playing JV basketball last year. Andrew Abrom came in off of the bench and came up with some baskets, and steals.
“Burt, he’s a freshman, and he did the job, too.”
South Central’s Jaetavion Edwards (16 points) hit a 3 with 2:14 to play to get the deficit back down to six, but Allen scored on back-to-back Garner possessions. Allen had a game-high 22 points to go with five assists.
Allen missed just three of his 15 shots. He was 8-of-10 from field overall, 2-of-3 from behind the arch and 4-of-5 at the free throw line.
“My teammates did a good job of getting me the ball in good shooting situations,” Allen said. “That helps you a lot.”
Barnes added 18 points for Garner and Smith had 15. It was a solid offensive night for the Trojans, who shot 65 percent in the second half and a solid 56 percent on the night.
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