When a sellout was officially announced shortly after tip-off, Northern Nash administrators spent the next several minutes trying to squeeze late arrivals into an already-tight gymnasium that was void of air conditioning.
It didn’t take long for the stifling facility to take on an air of discomfort, though no seat was hotter than the one occupied by Northern Nash coach Henry Drake, especially during a tense, restless final minute.
But after three timeouts – and the ultimate decision to go for one shot – Drake made the most important decision of his three-year career, though, in retrospect, it wasn’t a difficult one.
Drake played the odds and won big as he instructed his senior star and team leader Darius Spragley to close out Saturday’s third-round contest against defending state runner-up Terry Sanford in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A boys basketball playoffs.
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Spragley, a point guard, swished a 10-footer from the right corner with seven seconds remaining, and the Bulldogs couldn’t score on their final possession as Northern thrilled the overflow audience with a 58-56 decision.
“Coach Drake told me to keep the ball in my hands,” Spragley said. “He trusted me. It wasn’t necessarily the shot I wanted to take, but the screen we tried didn’t work. I just tried to put a little touch on the shot.”
Spragley’s heroics pushed the Knights (25-3) into a fourth-round game next Tuesday at home versus Eastern Guilford. The last time Northern Nash reached the fourth round was way back in 1995, when Drake was four years removed from his playing career at Northern Nash.
Northern Nash’s postseason run has been fraught with danger as the Knights’ three victories have come by a combined nine points.
But in each game, Northern Nash has made the necessary plays down the stretch – displaying a self-assured calm that usually isn’t a trademark of a program with such a minimal playoff pedigree over the past two decades.
The Knights’ savvy was evident once again Saturday against a Terry Sanford (16-12) club that won the state title in 2015 – and finished in second place last season.
Neither team led by more than six points in the struggle, and Terry Sanford tied the score at 56-56 on Telligence Johnson’s two free throws with 1:06 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Certainly, there was too much time on the clock for Northern Nash to hold the fall for a final shot.
But after 20 seconds of indecision, Drake called timeout. Then another stoppage of play came at the 33-second mark.
It was then that Drake decided to gamble on Spragley, who had nailed the eventual game-winner against Fike just two days earlier in the final minute.
“At first, we weren’t going to hold it all the way to the end,” Drake said. “But after the two time-outs, we decided the time was right. I told Darius to shoot to either win it or go to overtime. We didn’t want a lot of time left on the clock.”
Said Northern Nash senior Raymond “Goody” Bullock: “It was so intense in those timeout huddles. We wanted to win so badly. We believed in our coach to come up with a play to win.’’
Spragley took the inbounds pass, and as the ball sailed through the net there was one of the loudest crowd roars the Knights’ gymnasium has experienced in the past 20 years.
Following a timeout, the Bulldogs attempted a shot in the paint, but it was swatted out-of-bounds by Bullock with just 1.5 seconds left.
Terry Sanford tried a lob off the inbounds pass, only to see the ball deflected away as time expired and pandemonium ensued.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Bullock said. “I’ve never had an experience like this before. I just can’t believe (Northern Nash’s playoff run) is going this far.”
While deep playoff junkets are a commonplace occurrence at Terry Sanford, the Knights hadn’t even reached the third round since 2001, when a team led by Scottie Alston made it that far, only to suffer a heartbreaking overtime loss at home to Fayetteville’s Seventy-First High.
Alston was one of four former Knights to speak in the locker room before the game. Just before tip-off, Alston slipped on a Knights’ jersey top as if he was prepared to play – only to settle into a seat on the front row near midcourt.
“I didn’t even say a word to our guys before the game,” Drake said. “The former players did that for me. They came out of the locker room and told me the guys were ready. ... That’s just the way this community is. Northern Nash has a great history of athletics, and the people here take a lot of pride in what happens here. It means something to them.”
Nobody knows that intangible more than Drake, a former Knight himself who decided to get into teaching but waited almost one decade for his opportunity to become Northern Nash’s boys basketball coach.
When he accepted that role, Drake was a little disturbed by his current players’ lack of knowledge about the school’s past successes.
So one day, Drake took his performers on a walk down memory lane, a stroll past the trophy cases in the gym lobby. Drake even took the time to describe the in-depth events surrounding some of the most important plaques and trophies including Northern Nash’s girls state championship in 1998.
“I just wanted our guys to enjoy the journey they are on and to understand what it means to so many people,’’ Drake said. “I also wanted them to understand that they are trying to accomplish something that so many players before them have tried to accomplish. ... I’m just so happy for our kids. They have seen so many other teams around here go far in the playoffs in the past. They have heard people say that they can’t compete against schools from bigger areas. But now they have their own story to tell.’’
Spragley and sixth man Davontae Wiggins shared Northern Nash’s scoring honors with 13 points apiece, while Malik Johnson, a junior guard, was sharp for the Bulldogs with a game-high 24 points.