Mar 14, 2014
Apex High School faces Millbrook High School in the Regional Finals. After a close game Apex finished strong and won the game 63 to 57. (Chris Baird / WRAL Contributor).
With about five minutes to play in last week's 4-A eastern regional final against Millbrook, the Apex Cougar fans finally had a little room to breathe.
After being down most of the game, the Cougars managed to pull ahead by five points with the fourth-quarter clock winding down. A few minutes later, the Wildcats battled back to take the lead and Cougar fans found themselves where they have been through much of the season: On the edges of their seats.
The last two and a half minutes of the game got wilder than a game of Jumanji. Eventually, the fans who made the trip south to Fayetteville's Crown Coliseum were rewarded by seeing Apex's T.J. Evans and Ian Boyd knock down free throw after free throw to put the game away and head to the state championship game. And I wasn't surprised at all.
How could I be?
Back on Dec. 27, I stood near the baseline at Broughton High School and watched Apex, the same team that started the year 2-4, make multiple three-pointers near the end of the game to hang with Lake Highland Prep and UNC recruit Joel Berry in the HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational. The team would lead an impressive comeback before falling by five points.
A few weeks later, in one of the most interesting nights I've experienced on this job, I watched as Panther Creek forward Nubian Spann shattered the backboard against Apex, placing Evans on the wrong end of SportsCenter's top play of the evening. Six days later, after Panther Creek picked up the pieces, I watched Evans get his revenge as he dropped 35 points in a Cougar win.
And then there was Apex vs. Panther Creek part two, where the Cougars were down to the Catamounts by 14 points with four minutes to go on their own senior night. Evans made three shots from beyond the arc in the last two minutes and won the game on a shot at the buzzer after getting the rebound from a missed Majid Raji free-throw.
The roles were reversed on Feb. 28 at Northern High School in Durham, when Apex found itself down by a point with 11 seconds to play in the third round of the playoffs. This time it was Evans who lost control of the situation and Raji who was there to score for the team at the buzzer and win the game, sending the Cougars into the regional playoff round.
There, the team beat Clayton in overtime before coming from behind to beat Millbrook and enter the state title game.
You get the idea.
Unfortunately for the Apex coaching staff's blood pressure, it seems Apex has played in more close games than not-so-close games this season, and the Cougars have thrived in those situations.
Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, we'll find out if Apex has 32 minutes of magic left. Much like their path thus far, the final game won't be an easy one.
The Lake Norman Wildcats (28-1, 14-0) enter the game coming off two consecutive buzzer-beating wins. The team beat Ardrey Kell and Page out west in the regional tournament, each at the last second. During the state championship press conference Monday morning in Chapel Hill, Wildcat head coach Brandon Jolly said he's learned that his team is tough enough to grind out a close win. What a coincidence.
With both the Cougars and Wildcats battle-tested and ready to compete in a slugfest, Saturday's state championship game could go in a number of different directions.
It's possible that Lake Norman's size (one starter standing at 6-foot-9, two bench players standing at 6'9" and 6'10") can be too much for 6-foot-5 Raji, 6-foot-3 Boyd and 6-foot-3 Malik Williams to handle. As one of Lake Norman's best players, Hunter Seacat can record his double-double he almost averages (17 points, 9 rebounds per game) and the stat line could be the difference in the game.
On the other hand, Evans, Boyd and senior point guard T.J. Wells, along with junior forward John Kitoko and any of the team's other three-point weapons, could find their mark throughout the game and clutch shooting could lift the Cougars to the goal they came oh-so-close to realizing back in 2008.
Whatever happens, my money says the game comes down to the last two minutes. Something tells me both teams are okay with that.
Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT
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