WALNUT COVE — Johnny Thomas fought back tears after watching his Eastern Randolph High School varsity boys basketball team continue an incredible season with a 74-71 victory over South Stokes Tuesday night in the Western Region semifinals.
After what had transpired in the previous two hours, no one would have blamed him if the tears did flow.
Playing in front of a raucous crowd at a severely overcrowded South Stokes High School, the Wildcats put on quite a second-half display in rallying from a nine-point halftime deficit for the win that moves ER into the Regional finals for the first time in school history.
The third-seeded Wildcats improved to 28-2 on the season and earned a berth into Saturday’s title game against fourth-seeded Bishop McGuiness.
“I’m proud of my boys,” Thomas said after the Wildcats erased a double-digit first-half deficit by allowing just 26 points in the second half after giving up 45 in the first two quarters.
“I just told them in the locker room after the first half, that wasn’t us, it wasn't Eastern Randolph. We were giving up too many shots and not rebounding the basketball. We were able to find the matchups we wanted in the second half and found a rhythm.”
After ER erased a 45-36 halftime deficit by taking its first lead since early in the game midway through the third quarter, the game was back and forth, with both teams taking slight leads.
With Pearce Leonard, who scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half, and Timothy Brower, who added 10 of his 12 points after intermission, scoring at key moments, the Wildcats found themselves down 71-69 with 49 seconds to play.
Davonte Brooks tied the game from inside, but he missed a free throw and Jani Norwood, who was fouled after grabbing that offensive rebound, missed both of his free throw attempts.
ER’s Leonard, however, stole the ball near midcourt and went in for a contested layup. The shot was strong, but Brower was there for the stickback and the Wildcats had a 71-69 lead.
The second-seeded Sauras, who had an 18-game winning streak snapped in finishing the season 25-5, missed a short shot at the other end and ER’s Julian Brooks made one of two free throws with 10 seconds left.
South Stokes had two open shots from 3-point territory, but missed both before ER knocked the ball out of bounds with .03 left on the clock. A desperation 3-point attempt from the corner was way off the mark and the Wildcats and their fans celebrated.
“I told them it was going to be tough,” Thomas said. “You are playing at a place where the fans are on you screaming, hollering, cursing you, calling you all types of names and you get out here and you expect these guys to fall apart and our guys didn't fall apart. We made adjustments in the second half and got the win.”
ER committed numerous turnovers and fouls in the first quarter, falling behind 23-14 as the Sauras went to the free-throw line 13 times in the first quarter and 19 times in the first half, hitting 13 of them.
South Stokes’ Ethan Moran scored 10 points in the first quarter, Isaiah Lash added eight more and Barry Hairston scored 13 of his game-high 25 points in the second quarter.
“I told them to stop letting number one (Hairston) do whatever he wanted to do and don’t let five (Lash) do whatever he wanted to do,” Thomas said.
The Wildcats did and fought through an eight-minute delay when some fans were ejected from the gymnasium with 47.6 seconds left in the third period.
Leonard had 21 points, Davonte Brooks 15, Brower 12 and Nicah Taylor 11 for the Wildcats, who also got great contributions from Julian Brooks and Norwood.
“I’m proud of doing what we were told we couldn't do and that's to make it to the final four,” Thomas said. “Really proud.”
By Ray Criscoe
For the fourth straight year, Randleman reached the fourth round of the NCHSAA playoffs, but couldn't get over the hump in a game that was much closer than the score indicated.
Randleman, top-ranked in the West, jumped out quickly against No. 5 East Burke, hitting three straight three-pointers to take a 9-0 lead. But that lead evaporated by the end of the quarter, and a layup by freshman Kara Brinkley in the final seconds put East Burke ahead 15-13. Randleman turnovers played a key part in EB's 15-4 run to end the quarter.
That turned around in the second quarter. Randleman held the Cavaliers to five points — 3 of those on a 3-pointer by sophomore Braelyn Stillwell that rolled in and out and off the backboard and back in. An Audra Petty 3 with 30 seconds left gave the Tigers a 24-21 halftime edge.
That lead grew quickly to 27-21 on a Gracie Beane 3-pointer to open the second half, but the struggles returned for the Tigers after that. A Gracyn Hall score under the basket was all the Tigers could muster the rest of the quarter and they trailed 33-29 going into the fourth.
The Cavaliers grew that lead to 38-31 when Stillwell finished off that 17-4 run with a layup.
Then the Tigers rallied valiantly. A Hall 3-pointer drew them within 38-34 with a little over five minutes left. Two Elizabeth York free throws made it 38-36.
Four more points from Stillwell pushed the lead back to 42-36, but York made 2 of 3 free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt and Hall hit a pair of free throws with just over a minute left to get within two at 42-40.
But that was as close as they would get. The Cavaliers hit 7 of 10 free throws in the final minute to salt it away.
The Tigers hit eight 3-pointers for the game and 8 of 9 free throws, but had only 10 points in between and 12 turnovers as EB's speed, defense and rebounding proved problematic. Overall, the Tigers were just 13 for 46 (28.2%) from the floor.
Hall finished off her stellar career with 12 points, including two 3-pointers, and 8 rebounds. York had nine points, including hitting 6 of 7 free throws, and four assists, but was just 1 of 10 from the floor. Petty also had 9 points, going 3 for 8 from 3-point range.
The Tigers finished the season 27-2, giving this senior class a record of 88-10 over the last four years (including a 12-4 COVID-shortened season mark two years ago).
East Burke improves to 28-2 and faces No. 3 Salisbury on Saturday in the state semifinals. Salisbury defeated No. 2 Shelby 48-40.