As much as Neuse Charter has ruled the Carolina 1A Conference boys basketball ranks since joining the conference in 2013, one goal has eluded the Cougars: a conference tournament championship trophy.
Friday night’s 2016 tournament finals at Lakewood High presented another opportunity for Neuse Charter, the league’s regular-season champion and top state playoff seed. But thanks to a rough shooting night against James Kenan’s effective 3-2 zone, the spot in the school’s trophy case for that tournament trophy will go unfilled for another season. The Tigers grabbed a 64-62 win, holding off a furious comeback attempt.
The Cougars (21-7) trailed by eight with just more than two minutes to play before a string of 3-pointers from Byron Addison and Connor Pulley led to a 62-all tie with 58 seconds to play.
Kenan’s John Brooks scored on a driving scoop shot against pressure from multiple Neuse Charter defenders to push the Tigers ahead with 18.3 seconds left. The Cougars had a couple of attempts to get a tying or winning shot in the final seconds but the Kenan lead held.
“We didn’t lose the game down the stretch,” said Neuse Charter coach Jimmie Sanders Jr. “We gave ourselves a chance to win down the stretch. Our play early in the game — missed shots, turnovers, free throws — but us in a hole we couldn’t get out of. We didn’t come out to play early.”
Kenan (18-6 and the runner-up during the regular season) led for most of the night, scoring 14 points in the game’s first three minutes, 22 seconds of play. Neuse Charter did get ahead 19-16 early in the second quarter on a 12-point scoring run by Jimmie Sanders III, but the Tigers forged back ahead 27-23 at the half.
Sanders III finished with a game-high 29 points, including an 11-for-11 night at the free throw line.
The Cougars, 32-10 against conference foes during the regular season over the past three seasons, were just 7-of-26 from the field in the first half against Kenan’s zone defense.
“They played the same stuff against us all three times,” Sanders Jr. said. “The first time we played them we were 3-for-27 from 3-point range. This time, we weren’t much better.”
Neuse Charter was 2-for-10 from 3-point range in the first half and 9-of-27 for the night, including their last four attempts.
Down 56-48 with just less than three minutes to play, Addison nailed a 3-ball to start the Cougar rally. Kenan pushed the lead back to seven points on two Jalen Miller free throws with 1:43 to play before back-to-back 3s from Pulley. Addison later tied the game at 62 on a 3-pointer set up by a Sanders III drive to tie the contest at 62.
Pulley finished with 12 points, all on 3s; Addison had 11, including three 3s in the final quarter. Miller led the Tigers with 18 points and Darryl McCaster had 12.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t get the tournament title we’ve been after for three years,” Sanders Jr. said. “But we know the important stuff is still ahead of us in the state playoffs. It’s a one-game season from here on out. I’m confident we’ll get back to playing Neuse Charter basketball in the playoffs.”
Carolina 1A Girls
First Round: Neuse Charter 42, James Kenan 40; Spring Creek 59, Princeton 28; Lakewood 53, Hobbton 41; Rosewood 68, North Duplin 19
Semifinals: Rosewood 64, Neuse Charter 27; Lakewood 75, Spring Creek 60
Championship: Rosewood 65, Lakewood 40
Carolina 1A Boys
First Round: Neuse Charter 68, Princeton 45; Rosewood 54, Spring Creek 43; James Kenan 56, North Duplin 47; Lakewood 71, Hobbton 59
Semifinals: Neuse Charter 68, Lakewood 65; James Kenan 64, Rosewood 60
Championship: James Kenan 64, Neuse Charter 62