By designer definition, Eastern Guilford coach Joe Spinks sported a light-blue, long-sleeve oxford shirt for his club’s contest at Northern Nash in Tuesday’s quarterfinals of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A boys basketball playoffs.
But it didn’t take long for Spinks’ shirt to turn more of a perspiration-induced royal shade as the sweltering, steamy conditions inside the sold-out Northern Nash Gymnasium – along with the intensity of a tight game – began to take its toll on Eastern Guilford’s animated, never-sit-down coach.
Even the Northern Nash cheering section took aim at Spinks’ seemingly disheveled state as a student wrote ‘Sweat Much?’ on a dry-erase board that has become a portable commentary staple during the Knights’ playoff run.
But in the heat of the moment – and with a berth in the East Regional finals at stake – Spinks and his Wildcats were cool and collected down the stretch en route to earning a 62-52 decision over Northern Nash.
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The Knights, who had won each of their first three playoff outings in the closing minute, led 50-49 with 2:14 remaining in the fourth quarter and appeared destined for another heart-stopping victory.
Eastern Guilford, however, had other ideas as the Wildcats closed on a 13-2 spurt that ended Northern Nash’s season.
“We have really only played four or five (tight contests) like this all year,” Spinks said. “Everything I had read talked about how (Northern Nash) had pulled out out all of these close games. So, all we worked on Monday was last-minute situations and what we needed to do in the last three or four minutes.”
Spinks’ strategy worked as the Wildcats (28-3) took the lead for good on an old-fashioned three-point play from Nic Cheeley at the 2:09 mark.
After a Knights’ miss, Eastern Guilford spread its offense before Jaylen Alston scored on a driving layup, and Alston and Cheeley followed with two free throws each to put Eastern Guilford in charge at 58-50 with just 41 seconds left.
“We just did not get it done tonight,” said Northern Nash head coach Henry Drake. “We got some stops, but we couldn’t put the ball in the basket. In the first three rounds, we were able to stay focused and manage the game in the last few minutes. We did not do that this time. But I would not want to coach any other team. A lot of people would have loved to be in our shoes.”
In his trio of seasons at Northern Nash, Drake has rebuilt a program that hadn’t reached the fourth round of the playoffs since 1995.
The Knights went 25-4 overall and won the Big East Conference regular season championship with a perfect 10-0 mark.
“I have been dreading this day,” said Northern Nash senior Raymond ‘Goody’ Bullock. “I didn’t plan on losing here. I am sad, but I didn’t expect a year like this. We proved everybody wrong.”
Knights’ senior point guard Darius Spragley, who had delivered game-winning field goal in two of his club’s previous playoff triumphs, was the game’s high scorer with 18 points.
Alston and Cheeley shared Eastern Guilford’s scoring honors with 16 points apiece.
When the game was over, Spinks – a Campbell University Hall of Famer – joined his squad for a brief locker room celebration before searching for a T-shirt to replace his soaked oxford.
“Back when I was a kid, we would play in gyms with no air conditioning back in the day,” Spinks said. “It was pretty hot (inside the NNHS Gymnasium). I had talked to the coach at Northeast Guilford (the Knights’ first-round opponent), and he told me to make sure my players were hydrated the day before. But we still had kids cramping.”
Eastern Guilford advances to take on Northern Guilford – for the third time this season – in Saturday’s regional title outing in Fayetteville. The teams split their two meetings in the regular season.