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A comeback for the ages

MORGANTON — All gas. No breaks.


It’s the motto the Eastern Randolph High School varsity basketball team has used since they got together for the very first time. It simply means starting the game at the highest possible speed and never slowing down.


That doesn’t mean they’re not going to run into a few potholes or dangerous curves on their journey. But whatever obstacles the Wildcats must face, they will not slow down.


That philosophy was never more evident than Saturday afternoon in the West Regional championship game at Freedom High School. The Wildcats ran into a number of obstacles, obstacles that were trying to thwart ER from reaching its first basketball state title game in school history. 


The players and coaching staff cleared every hurdle and drove through every detour on their way to a most improbable 62-59 victory over Bishop McGuinness.


“I am actually speechless,” senior guard Pearce Leonard said after the Wildcats overcame crippling foul trouble and a 21-point halftime deficit to give ER its first berth into a state championship game. “This is fun.”


The end result certainly was, but getting there certainly had its moments when the only thing fans could do was let out a sigh, a sigh and a few choice words toward the officiating. But that has been and always will be part of the game.


There was a missed goaltending call against Bishop McGuinness and then a no call when a Bishop McGuinness player dove for a loose ball, corralled it and slid right across the floor before passing it off to a teammate. All this, and a number of missed ER shots early on, helped the Villains jump out to an 11-0 lead.


Then the foul trouble began. Leading scorer Davonte Brooks was whistled for his second foul at the 3:12 mark of the first quarter and then was called for an offensive charge at the 2:24 mark. He returned to the bench for the rest of the half.


Jani Norwood was called for his third personal foul at 5:34 of period two and then his fourth at the 4:12 mark. Meanwhile, Timothy Brower was called for his second foul with just under a minute in the first quarter, his third with 2:58 to go in the first half and his fourth with 46.7 seconds left in the first half. Then AJ Randall was ejected for the game after an intentional foul just seconds before halftime. 


The Villains were able to take advantage of the foul-plagued Wildcats and used an 11-2 run to end the first half for what seemed like an insurmountable 41-20 lead at the break.


Surely, there wasn't any way to fight back from this deficit, no matter how fast and for how long the Wildcats would fight. Rallying from a nine-point halftime deficit in the fourth round against South Stokes was one thing, but not many teams can fight back from a 21-point halftime deficit.


But not many teams have what the Wildcats have this year.


Leonard has been an incredibly important part of this ER program, but he was never more important than against the Villains. Especially when Norwood fouled out with 7:10 left in the third quarter and Brooks fouled out with 1:21 left in the third and the Wildcats still down by 12.


“When Davante fouled out, he got a little teary eyed,” head coach Johnny Davis said. “He had been carrying the team this year. I told him you have done a phenomenal job of carrying this team this year. It's time for us to return the favor.”


With Julian Brooks, Leonard and Brower providing the offense and Brooks, Will Stalker and others providing the defense, the Wildcats fought back, took a 54-51 lead with 4:09 to play and then rode out the remaining time with all gas and no breaks.


“We can do anything when we put our minds to it,” said Leonard, who had 14 points in the third quarter, 10 in the fourth quarter and finished with 28 for the game. “We knew we could come back.”


“These boys don’t quit, they just don’t quit,” Thomas said. “They don’t quit and we got it. Our boys have heart. I know what they do in practice. That’s all fight, all heart. These boys wanted it and they took it.”


With all gas and no breaks.