RALEIGH — In the last few rounds of the NCHSAA 1-A state tournament, slow starts and huge deficits were nothing new for the Eastern Randolph HIgh School varsity basketball team.
So when the same scenario occurred Saturday in the state championship game against Wilson Prep, the Wildcats once again scratched and clawed their way back into contention.
Only this time, Wilson Prep had an answer.
Trailing by 14 points late in the third quarter and by 11 to start the final eight minutes, ER pulled to within three with 1:45 to play, but the Tigers scored the final eight points of the game for an 84-73 victory at Reynolds Coliseum, ending the Wildcats’ incredible run for the school’s first state basketball title.
ER finishes its most successful season in school history at 29-3, while Wilson Prep, which also won the state title in 2021, finishes 27-7.
After the game, ER head coach Johnny Thomas, who is in his first year at the Wildcats’ helm, said he couldn’t have been prouder of a team that orchestrated quite a turnaround from a season ago.
“One year ago, we came out and went 8-15 for the season and in the conference went 2-10,” Thomas said. “I want to point out the fact that these boys have dedicated everything they possibly could to the game of basketball and I’m proud of them.
“We have nothing to be sad over. I told them one year ago, you weren’t even close to this. One year ago, you were at the house. One year ago, everyone doubted you and even this year, no one gave us any sort of respect. No one believed in our ability until we went out and made them believe.”
The Wildcats made a lot of people believe this year as they captured the Piedmont Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships and then continued to advance through the playoffs, going deeper than any ER team had gone before.
Against Wilson Prep, the Wildcats found themselves down numerous times and fought back from every deficit, until the final one proved just a bit too much to overcome.
“When you go out there and pour your heart into it and it just doesn't go your way, sometimes that's how the cookie crumbles,” Thomas said. “We knew one team was going to win and one team was going to lose. This was all about them going out and having fun.”
The Wildcats, who completed improbable second-half comebacks against South Stokes and Bishop McGuiness in the regional semis and finals, found themselves down 65-51 late in the third quarter and 65-54 heading into the fourth.
But Davonte Brooks, who had a spectacular game with 34 points and 19 rebounds, scored four quick points to start the quarter and he then added a bucket off an offensive rebound to make it 65-60 with 5:21 to play. The Tigers then extended their lead to 73-64 before four points from Brooks and two points from Pierce Leonard pulled ER to within 73-70 with 2:57 to play.
Trailing 76-71, Brooks scored with 1:45 to play, but that would be the final points of the game for the Wildcats, who saw the Tigers hit 4 of 8 free throws down the stretch.
“I really didn't want to lose and that’s why I was playing so hard,” said Brooks, who definitely opened up the eyes of college recruiters. “It was physical. We had to fight back and be strong.”
Brooks scored 17 points in each half, including 12 in the final quarter when the Wildcats made one last push.
“Davonte doesn't quit,” Thomas said. “He reminds me a lot of me. When I played basketball at Greensboro Day, I played just like that. … The difference between me and him, he’s a smarter player than what I was, he’s a more aggressive player than what I was and he’s a more confident player than what I was. He should be playing in college, and after today, no one can deny that.”
Much like they did in the last two rounds, the Wildcats fell into a big hole early. Plagued by turnovers and cold shooting, ER found itself down 13-2 three minutes into the game. It got better for the Wildcats, who cut their deficit to 19-13 after the first quarter, but 12 turnovers and 5 of 14 shooting from the floor in the first eight minutes led to the early deficit.
“When we first went out there, we played selfish ball,” senior guard Pierce Leonard said. “Then throughout the game, we started playing as a team.”
ER, which committed just one turnover in the second quarter, fought back, pulling to within 31-26 before a 9-0 run gave the Cats their first lead of the game. Nicah Taylor’s two free throws with 2:26 left pushed ER in front for the first time and Brooks added two free throws and Taylor one for a 35-31 advantage with 1:54 to play.
Wilson Prep scored six straight points to take the lead once again before sophomore Timothy Brower, who finished with 20 points, made one free throw with three seconds left to pull the Wildcats to within 37-36 at halftime.
“We came out slow and this team knows how to use that against you,” Brower said.
ER had trouble with WIlson Prep’s David Ellis, who finished with 14 points, 19 rebounds and five blocked shots in earning the game’s most valuable player award. Jahmar Jones had 20 points, Josh Hicks 17, Lez Minter 15 and Brandon Anderson 12 as five players reached double figures in scoring.
The Tigers shot 48.5 percent from the field and hit seven 3-pointers in the game.
“Hats off to Eastern Randolph, they played an incredible game and fought like I knew they would,” said Wilson Prep coach Anthony Atkinson, who was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters at the same time Thomas was.
“It was like our season. We were up, we were down, we were up, we were down. My guys were tough all night. It was a physical game and we felt that would help us.”
Leonard finished with nine points and Taylor five for ER, which shot 35.8 percent from the field.
“To take a team that is from a football school and make it to the state championship game, I don’t know what else to say,” Thomas said. “We’re not just a football school anymore.”
Indeed they are not.