South Central is showing improvement in clutch moments, which might not bode well for future opponents in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A boys basketball playoffs.
The Falcons withstood another test, this time in the third round from Apex in a 60-53 victory Saturday.
South Central (26-1) will face Green Hope, a 71-67 winner in overtime over Cardinal Gibbons. The teams will square off Tuesday at South Central for one of the eastern regional berths in Fayetteville on March 4.
South Central, which won its 16th consecutive game, hasn’t been tested much all season as just four of the Falcons’ victories have been by single digits, including a 51-46 overtime scare in the second round against Athens Drive on Thursday.
“The biggest thing with us is that we haven’t been challenged a lot this year,” South Central coach Chris Cherry said. “My message to them was Athens Drive has been in some competitive situations and that showed. We haven’t been in competitive situations and that showed Thursday.”
While some free throws were missed early down the stretch, the Falcons otherwise showed that they learned from the last outing.
“It showed on the positive side for us,” Cherry said.
With 5:40 to go in the third period, Apex’s Eric Fox finished off an alley-oop set up by Colton Williams to cut South Central’s lead to 25-23.
The Falcons responded with a 9-0 run.
Day’ron Sharpe had six of those points on three baskets, two of those set up on sharp passes from Luke Davis and Sykeim Phillips, and Xavier Boyd added an old-fashioned three-point play to put South Central ahead 34-23 with 1:50 to go in the third.
That sort of scoring run in the second half has knocked out most of the few opponents that were still in games against South Central. Apex didn’t get the memo, countering with an 11-2 spurt as Fox finished the period with a jumper at the buzzer to keep the Cougars within 36-34 with one quarter to go.
Fox, who scored his 1,000th point in an Apex uniform in the second period, finished with 28 points, following up a 40-point, 16-rebound performance against Clayton in the second round.
“He’s a very gifted basketball player and a great shooter,” Apex coach David Neal said of the 6-foot-7 senior. “Great basketball IQ. Understands the game. He’s just a tremendous talent. To say we’re going to miss him is the understatement of the night.”
South Central started the fourth period with seven quick points keyed by a Sharpe steal, layup and converting one of two free throws following an intentional foul call.
Fox answered with a pair of 3-pointers as the Cougars again cut the deficit to 47-43 with 3:30 to go.
Apex fouled at will in an attempt to claw back. The Cougars put Boyd on the free-throw line four times down the stretch. Boyd missed his first pair of free throws but recovered to convert four of his next six tries. His teammates sank nine of their 10 attempts in the last three minutes to put away the game.
While Cherry says his team shoots free throws every day and wants them to continue to work on that aspect, he’s concerned that his team might not seem to appreciate that the mental aspect and the pressure differ from practice to a tight game down the stretch in the postseason.
“A lot of times, they want to shoot them (in practice) and get home,” Cherry said “It’s the same routine every day, but we’ll get there.”
Sharpe finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Phillips added 14 points, and Tahj Riddick chipped in 13.
Fox scored 22 of his 28 points in the second half.
“I thought we defended him great in the first half,” Cherry said. “In the second half, we played a little bit more conservative. In the first half, we ran a lot of double-teams at him to get it out of his hands. In the second half, we played him more straight up, but we missed a couple of helps.”
The postgame locker room following a loss in the state playoffs is always somber, and Apex’s was no exception.
“We had a tremendous season, and I was really proud of them for a lot of things,” Neal said. “Tonight, we just didn’t play very well, and South Central had a lot to do with that. Their defense and their trapping made us uncomfortable, and we had some turnover problems in the second quarter when we couldn’t handle it.”
Apex wrapped up its season with an 18-11 record.