Located in the lobby of the school gymnasium, an oversized hutch with a glass case and two makeshift bookshelves display the trophies and other memorabilia from the brief history of the Neuse Charter boys basketball program.
Space is already becoming limited, even though the Cougars have fielded a team for just four years, the last three of which were as members of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
Neuse Charter added another piece of prized hardware to its collection Thursday as the Cougars wrapped up the Carolina 1A Conference regular season crown for the second time in three seasons with an 84-47 decision over James Kenan.
“It’s a great feeling,’’ said Neuse Charter’s Devante Stevens, who was one of three upperclassmen honored as part of the school’s Senior Night festivities. “I’ve been with this group the last four years, and we have worked so hard for this. We run when it’s hot and we run when it’s cold. We stay in the weight room. We are in the gym shooting all the time. This is what we’ve worked for. I love my team’’
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The Cougars (19-6 overall, 13-1 league) lost at James Kenan earlier in the season -- a setback that would prove to be Neuse Charter’s only defeat in conference action. The Tigers (15-6, 11-3) were the defending co-champs in the Carolina 1A and could have drawn even with the Cougars with a road victory, but James Kenan led just once, and that was at 2-0.
“Any time you are playing for a conference championship, it’s big,’’ said Neuse Charter head coach Jimmie Sanders. “Our fans have been great all year. We haven’t lost at home this year, and we have really fed off that home-court advantage.’’
During the clubs’ earlier meeting, the Cougars struggled mightily from the 3-point arc, converting just 3-of-26 opportunities. James Kenan prefers to utilize a zone defense, so Sanders thought improved long-range shooting from his squad might result in a much different outcome during the rematch.
That proved to be the case as Neuse Charter poured in nine trifectas, five of which came in the second period. The Cougars held a 13-6 cushion going into the stanza, but used their distance excellence to extend to 35-29 at halftime. James Kenan would get no closer than that margin the rest of the way.
“We were just more poised and focused than we were the first time we played (the Tigers),’’ Sanders said. “It’s tough to go down there and play at James Kenan. We stopped doing the things that we do well. If you lose focus, you lose the game. But that didn’t happen to us (Thursday).’’
Neuse Charter continued to build its lead in the third quarter as Stevens, a member of the school’s 1,000-point club, delivered 12 points in that frame alone, including a thunderous coast-to-coast dunk that sent the school’s student section into a near-frenzy.
Moments later, Stevens and his teammates stood arm in arm at midcourt as fans and students took team photos, all the while serenading the players with a ‘Conference Champions’ chant.
“We had a special team in 2013-14 when we won the conference and reached the third round of the playoffs,’’ Sanders said. “Last year, we went 13-12 but didn’t have any seniors. We thought this could be another special group this season. We got started last summer working toward this.’’
Byron Addison, another senior, paced Neuse Charter with 24 points, with Stevens not far behind at 22 tallies. Point guard Jimmie Sanders, the son of the coach, delivered 19 points. Like Stevens, Sanders’ photo and a signed basketball are encased in the lobby hutch to signify his status as a 1,000-point career scorer.
It didn’t help James Kenan’s cause that John Brooks, described by Tigers’ coach Jeff Byrd as one of the conference’s top players, was unavailable due to an ankle injury. Byrd indicated that Brooks might be able to return to the lineup for next week’s Carolina 1A Tournament.
“It hurts not having (Brooks), but we were able to beat (Neuse Charter) the first time without him,’’ Byrd said. “We just got out of our game (Thursday) and (the Cougars) just started making shots. That was the most points we’ve given up all year. If we play well, we can play with people. But tonight, the better team won.’’
Jareem Lovette was James Kenan’s leading scorer at 14 points.
Neuse Charter also claimed a victory in the girls game as the Cougars took charge in the first period en route to a 60-27 triumph over the Tigers.
Cougar girls avenge loss as well
Just like the boys, Neuse Charter (15-9, 7-7) lost at James Kenan earlier in the campaign, but the rematch was no contest, thanks in part to a 16-2 Cougars’ spurt to begin the game.
Lacey Jones poured in eight points for the Cougars during that decisive stretch and would finish with 18 markers. Teammate Dominique Dakin, the only senior on Neuse Charter’s roster, matched that number to tie Jones for scoring honors
James Kenan, which had won four of its last five outings, fell to 8-14 and 7-7. The Tigers and Cougars finished tied for fourth place in the Carolina 1A standings.