MORGANTON — It was during the Western Region finals Saturday afternoon when Eastern Randolph High School varsity boys basketball coach Johnny Thomas noticed a couple of young Wildcats fans with their heads down. Things certainly weren’t going as planned as the Wildcats were seeking their first regional championship in school history.
The team trailed by 21 points at halftime, was experiencing very serious foul trouble and had shown no ability whatsoever in that first half to stop the Bishop McGuinness offense or solve the Bishop McGuinness defense.
The Wildcats were down, but as Eastern Randolph fans have seen before in these state playoffs, they certainly were not out. And with a 180-degree turn in the second half, ER went out and proved it once again.
Pearce Leonard fueled an incredible second-half comeback with 14 points in the third quarter and 24 of his 28 points after intermission, Timothy Brower added 10 crucial second-half points, the team switched to a rarely-used man-to-man defense and the Wildcats withstood a do-or-die game in which leading scorer Davonte Brooks scored just two points because of major foul trouble, for a stunning 62-59 victory over Bishop McGuinness at Freedom High School.
The win lifts the third-seeded Wildcats to 29-2 on the season and earns them a berth in the state 1-A championship game, which will be played next Saturday. ER will meet Wilson Prep, which dusted off Bertie 61-57 for the East Regional championship.
While ER’s first half against the Villains was not the way the script was written, Thomas said he still had plenty of faith in his team and he wanted to make sure everyone knew that.
“These two kids were just sitting there and their heads were down and I was smiling, I always like to smile, and I asked them why they were so sad, they were acting like this game was over,” Thomas said. “I said have fun. We got you.”
Boy, did they ever.
ER outscored the Villains 23-8 in the third quarter and 19-10 in the final period for a 42-18 second-half bulge, one round after rallying from a nine-point halftime deficit in holding South Stokes to just 26 second-half points for a 74-71 regional semifinal win. The games were eerily similar, with poor shooting and foul trouble leading to an early deficit only to have the Wildcats’ resolve allow for a comeback win.
“This was similar to the last game and at halftime, we sat down and I told them we are down by 21 points,” Thomas said. “We already made history and we’re about to do it again. We held them to 18 points the entire second half. Our defense was the best I have seen and we didn’t play zone. We played straight man.
“As their head coach, even I am in awe of what they did.”
With Leonard scoring eight points and Brower five more, the Wildcats scored the first 13 points of the second half to quickly close the gap and ER was back in contention. The Wildcats found themselves down by 14 at 49-35 with under two minutes left in the third quarter, but four points each from Leonard and Nicah Taylor keyed an 8-0 run to close the quarter, pulling ER close once again at 49-43.
“I’m glad we came out with higher energy than them because if they would have come out with higher energy than us, it would have been a bigger lead and it was already 21,” Leonard said of the start of the second half. “I wasn’t feeling any pressure. We still had plenty of time. I just said let's step up and score the ball and get some stops and we did. I was confident with my shot.”
Trailing 51-44 with 6:52 left, Leonard started a 10-0 run, with his deep 3-pointer from the wing giving ER its first lead of the game at 54-51 with 4:09 left.
The game was tied at 57-57 when Leonard nailed another 3-pointer, his fourth of the second half, to lift ER to a 60-57 lead and the Wildcats would never trail again. A free throw from Julian Brooks pushed the lead to 61-57 and after a bucket pulled the Villains to within 61-59, Leonard made one of two free throws with 58 seconds left.
Both teams missed a couple of free throws in the waning seconds before the Villains saw a couple of last-second 3-pointers miss the mark.
“We are so hyped in the locker room, we’re louder in there than we were on the floor,” Brower said. “We worked hard for it and we just kept fighting in the second half and came back from 20. It feels great.”
The Wildcats fell behind 11-0 to open the game and instantly were in serious foul trouble. Davonte Brooks, who was averaging 25 points per game, picked up his third personal foul with 2:24 left in the first period, Jani Norwood his fourth with 4:12 left in the second quarter and Brower picked up his third with 2:58 left in the second quarter and fourth with 46.7 seconds left. That foul trouble was definitely pivotal as Bishop McGuinness stretched a 30-18 lead to 41-20 at the break.
“It was almost like Davey and Goliath,” Thomas said of the beginning of the game. “They have been in this situation way more than we have. They were well-versed in being here and winning and we haven’t been. A lot of this stuff we have been doing for the first time.”
Norwood would foul out with 7:10 left in the third period and Brooks fouled out with 1:21 left in the third quarter. Brower ended up fouling out with 1:21 left in the game.
With as much foul trouble as the Wildcats experienced, the Wildcats received stellar play from their role and bench players. Will Stalker and Julian Brooks provided a big lift for ER.
Switching defenses was also key, Thomas said.
“We never had really gone man-to-man because we get mismatched because of our size,” Thomas said. “We worked on it a little this week in case we needed to use it. We were able to pressure and take the ball out of 4’s hands. We started getting some mismatches and we exploited them.”
Thomas was referring to Bishop McGuinness’ Jamison Graves, who had just two of his 19 points after intermission.
Leonard had 28 points, Brower 16 and Taylor eight for the Wildcats.
Thomas, who went to a pair of state championships while as a player at Greensboro Day, now gets his chance to go as a coach.
“It feels even better as a coach because it means my philosophy and everything I’m teaching these boys is starting to matter,” Thomas said. “I’m ecstatic for this opportunity. We started the season with doubt and now we’re finishing the season going to the state championship.”