South Central was forced to make a major defensive adjustment two possessions into Tuesday’s fourth-round matchup against Green Hope.
But, like everything else thrown at South Central this postseason, it was able to adjust, move forward and advance.
South Central’s Falcons used its usual stellar defense, 26 points from sophomore guard Shykeim Phillips and patience on both ends of the floor to beat Green Hope’s Falcons 59-50 in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A boys basketball playoffs.
South Central (27-1) will face Leesville Road, a 61-54 winner over Seventy-First, in the eastern 4A final Saturday in Fayetteville. It is the fourth time South Central and coach Chris Cherry has advanced to the regionals’ neutral-court setting, having also gotten there in 2010, 2011, and 2015.
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“Proud of them,” Cherry said. “We’ve always said there’s going to be a point where the press isn’t going to bail you out. We’re going to have to guard 5-on-5.”
That was because Green Hope needed only its first two possessions to set the tone.
South Central came out pressing and trapping, only to watch Green Hope score twice with ease as Ryan Shaffer broke the press with an easy layup, then Will Harkins followed with a backdoor layup.
“If you can spread the floor, it makes their rotations a lot more difficult,” Green Hope coach John Green said. “So we tried to spread the floor and we got a couple of easy baskets. ... It took them a while, but (South Central) responded because that’s what good teams do.”
While it was only two minutes into the game, Green Hope sent the message that it was not going to be pressed and trapped into submission like many of South Central’s opponents this season.
“Once they realized it was going be a 5-on-5 game and it wasn’t going to be an all-out press and run and shoot, we had to guard tonight,” Cherry said. “And we did a good job.”
Green Hope rattled off 10 consecutive points in the second period, only to watch South Central answer with seven in a row of its own to cut its deficit to one at intermission.
“We had to communicate and talk on defense, and call out the switches and the screens,” Phillips said. “We weren’t communicating earlier, and we had to make that big adjustment.”
Luke Davis was a key to South Central’s rally, blocking three shots in the last three minutes of the half.
“Luke was terrific,” Cherry said of the 6-foot-7 sophomore forward. “I thought he bailed us out.”
Phillips, who had 10 points in the first two periods, took over for South Central offensively. He started the third period with a 3-pointer and added two more in a 30-second span later in the quarter, the last one giving South Central the lead for good with 3:27 left.
“He’s wise beyond his years,” Cherry said of the South Central sophomore. “He has been special all year, whether on offense or on defense. We struggled on Thursday (against Athens Drive) because he was sick as a dog.”
Phillips finished with 11 points in the period. Xavier Boyd’s field goal in the lane and a dunk off a fast break staked South Central to an eight-point advantage with one period to go.
Shaffer’s 3-pointer with 1:36 left in the game cut Green Hope’s deficit to 51-48, but South Central – which missed the front end of three consecutive 1-and-1s on the free-throw line – hit eight of its 12 attempts in the last 90 seconds to seal the game.
Tahj Riddick added 10 points for South Central. Shaffer paced Green Hope with 18 points, and Harkins chipped in 13.
South Central, which has won 17 consecutive games dating back to December, faced its third consecutive opponent from the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference. South Central wiggled past Athens Drive 51-46 in overtime in the second round, and ousted Apex 60-53 Saturday. The SWAC has been responsible for three of South Central’s five wins by single digits.
“I was impressed with how we played,” Green said. “I think we wore down the last quarter-and-a-half. We started settling for some jump shots and not moving as much on offense. ... I thought we handled their scramble and trapping fairly well. I was certainly proud of how we started. I just wish we could have finished a little stronger.”
The loss ended an eight-game winning streak for Green Hope, which finished its season with a 26-5 record and a Southwest Wake Athletic Conference tournament title.
The fourth-round appearance was the farthest the school has ever advanced in the boys basketball playoffs.