RAMSEUR — There were a lot of eyebrows raised when the Eastern Randolph High School boys varsity basketball schedule was announced.
A year after advancing to the state 1-A championship game against Wilson Prep, ER head coach Johnny Thomas loaded this year’s schedule with big, tall, quick and talented opponents.
So the Wildcats took the floor against the likes of Oak Grove, Oak Ridge Military Academy, Swansboro, Lee County and Farmville Central, the top-ranked 2-A team in the eastern half of the state.
After finishing 29-3 a year ago in advancing to the 1-A title game in a loss against Wilson Prep, the Wildcats started this season splitting their first 14 games.
But the lessons learned playing against some of the top competition in the state certainly has proved successful as the Bulldogs compete in the Piedmont Athletic Conference.
ER held the high-powered offense of Trinity High School to just one point in the game’s final 2:12, which keyed a late run and guided the Wildcats to a thrilling 81-77 PAC victory Friday night at ERHS.
The win gave ER a 4-1 league record and an 8-7 overall mark, while Trinity saw a four-game winning streak come to an end. The Wildcats and Bulldogs, now 4-1 and 11-6, returned to action earlier this week.
The Wildcats trailed by nine points in the second half against THS, but rallied behind Timmy Brower, Will Stalker and Nicah Taylor for the all-important league victory.
“We practice situations like that,” ER coach Johnny Thomas said of his team trailing for much of the game. “The most important thing I learned while playing at N.C. State was as long as there's time on the clock, there is an opportunity. We practice being down by five points, down by 10.
“We try and win every quarter, but against a really good team, we just need to stay within reach. I just kept telling them one step at a time. I didn’t think we were ever in trouble. I just thought we struggled to make vital shots, but in the end, we made the shots that mattered.”
THS led 64-62 entering the final quarter and when Jacob Hodges converted a rebound into a basket, THS led 76-70 with 2:12 to play.
But the Bulldogs could score just one more free throw the rest of the way, while a basket by Brower, who finished with 34 points, and a 3-pointer from Taylor trimmed the ER deficit to 76-75 with 1:45 to play.
A free throw from Hodges pushed the THS lead to 77-75, but two free throws from Brower with 1:11 left tied the game and two more charity tosses by Brower with 31 seconds left gave ER a 79-77 lead. THS missed a couple of offensive chances before Will Stalker and Brower each hit one free throw for the final score.
“Both teams played very very hard,” Thomas said. “When I talked to my guys coming into this game, (Trinity) has been beating some really good teams and our number one goal was to slow down (Dominic) Payne. But Payne is a heck of a player. We put Rayden (West) on him in the second half and he did a good job.”
Payne finished with 26 points and Brandon Campbell had 22 for THS. Both players fouled out, Campbell with 2:15 to play and Payne with 1:11 left. Hodges added 10 points.
Brower had 34 points, Taylor 19 and Stalker 14 for ER.
“They did what we do in practice,” Thomas said.