Offense was a challenge for the Apex boys basketball team in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s 4A state playoffs.
It wasn’t in round two.
Led by senior forward Eric Fox’s career-high 40 points, the Cougars jumped on Clayton early and never let up in taking an 83-67 victory to officially close the “Cougar Den.” The gym, as well as the rest of the school, will be demolished this summer as part of a two-year complete rebuild.
“We’ve been getting off to some slow starts this year,” said Fox, who also had 16 rebounds and four assists. “It was key for us to not do it tonight. Once we did, we just controlled the game the whole time. ... I don’t know what it is about this gym, but my shots really seem to fall here.”
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Added Apex coach David Neal: “Eric Fox dropping 40 here in the second round of the playoffs was just totally awesome. He’s been so good and so consistent for us for so long. I’m just very happy for him.”
The last time the No. 19 seed Cougars (18-10) played No. 30 Clayton (14-13), they won in overtime in the fourth round of the 2014 N.C. High School Athletic Association’s 4A playoffs en route to the state title.
“I wasn’t on the team, but I was at that state championship game,” Fox said of the 62-59 win over Lake Norman when he was a freshman. “I want to be back there. We know South Central is next, they’re going to be good.”
Next up on the path to the 4A title game is Saturday at No. 2 South Central (25-1). The Falcons, champions of the Eastern Carolina 3A/4A Conference, defeated No. 22 Athens Drive in overtime 51-46.
Clayton looked to continue its hot shooting from its upset of SWAC champs Cary in the first round and senior shooting guard Martavis McLamb drained a 3-pointer to open the game for the Comets.
However, the Cougars would go to Fox inside for a layup as he was guarded by 5-11 E.J. Bradshaw. Fox would net the next seven points before another McLamb trey made it 7-6 with 5:09 on the clock.
The hosts drained their next three 3-pointers with only one free throw in response by the Comets to take control for good at 19-7.
McLamb canned another 3 and a short jumper by Devin Carter cut the lead to 19-12 at the break. However, Clayton would not score another basket until McLamb hit a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left in the half to snap a 15-5 Apex spurt and the teams went into the lockers at 36-20 Cougars.
“We were real worried about our matchups and we really don’t have a matchup for (Fox),” Clayton head coach Denny Medlin said. “We never really figured out a way to defend them the whole night. We tried some different lineups, but it’s bad when you’re in the playoffs and experimenting.”
The shots kept falling for Apex in the third quarter as it hit 8 of its first 10 shots (the Cougars hit 21 of 36 in the game). The lead eventually ballooned to 60-31 on Denzel Jacobson’s 3-pointer with 1:21 left.
Clayton summoned up some guts to try and make a comeback, scoring the last eight points of the quarter – including two 3s by McLamb – during a 10-0 run. McLamb and junior point guard MaCaleb Robertson each had 22 for the Comets.
However, the rest of the way Apex hit most of its free throws – finishing 32 of 37 at the line – and never allowing it to get closer than 15.
“It got kind of crazy out there in the second half with as many fouls that were being called and all the free throws,” Neal said. “Hitting (32 of 37), wow. That is probably the best we’ve shot them in any game.”
Junior Sal Curcuru added 18 points and Jacobson 12 for Apex.