Mar 1, 2014
After making a late go-ahead basket, the Northern Durham Knights left the Apex Cougars 12 seconds on the clock. That was all they needed.
Trailing by a point in the final seconds, senior guard T.J. Evans brought the ball up the floor for Apex, lost control on a drive and found teammate Majid Raji open at the last second for a buzzer-beating jumper as the Cougars shocked second-seed Northern Durham in the third round of the N.C. High School Association state playoffs Friday night.
"To make the last shot is something amazing," Raji said. "It still hasn't sunk in. I think tomorrow morning when I wake up and go to practice I'm going to be the happiest man alive."
On paper, Apex's 64-63 win over Northern was an upset, as the Cougars entered the game as the seventh seed in the 4-A East bracket. The outcome was even more improbable considering most late-game scenarios for the team are run through the hands of Evans or point guard T.J. Wells. In the waning seconds of Friday's game, however, an unlikely hero emerged.
"Raji moved in from New Jersey," said Apex head coach David Neal. "He’s in his first year in our program. We’ve had a third-round hump over the last two years where we haven’t won in the third round, and it’s just pretty ironic sometimes how it works out. He made all our shots for us and he wasn’t here for the last two years for those two losses."
The many ups and downs of the game's second half began when, after trailing 27-21 at halftime, the Cougars turned on their offense in the third quarter. The team opened the period on a 6-0 run, capped by an Evans three-pointer, to tie the game at 27-27.
From there, Apex turned red-hot from beyond the arc while Northern continued to score behind efficient performances from star players Ricky Council and Kentrell Barkley. The Cougars entered the fourth quarter up 46-42.
Lead changes highlighted the final eight minutes until a late T.J. Evans put-back lay-in and an ensuing Ian Boyd drive put the Cougars on top by five points with three minutes to play. With momentum beginning to shift, the game looked to be Apex's to lose.
Council and Barkley led the team back, however, and with 36.2 seconds left on the clock, the Knights led 61-60.
Raji scored quickly, securing a rebound off an Evans miss and putting up a shot to give Apex a 62-61 lead. With just 25 seconds left in the game, it seemed Northern would hold the ball and wait for the last shot with a chance to win the game at the final moment, but Council immediately drove to the rim and scored the go-ahead lay-up. The Knights led by a point with 12 seconds left. That's when Raji struck again.
"Council made a heck of a shot there with 12 seconds left, and if we don’t come down and score, then he’s the one who made the play," Neal said. "He’s a great player."
Northern head coach Ronnie Russell agreed with his team's decision to score quickly on its final possession.
"I think the kids saw that they had an opportunity," Russell said. "With the guys that we've got, I think they saw a window of opportunity and tried to do something with it. That’s the nature of the game."
Raji led Apex in scoring with 20 points. Evans scored 14 while Wells added 13.
"I’ve been practicing that shot so much during practice—the short corner," Raji said. "I knew once I had it in my hands and I went up with it, I knew when it went out of my hand that I made the shot. I thank God that it went in, because I didn’t want my senior season to end."
The second half of the game and the late Apex comeback had few similarities to the first half of the game, in which Northern limited Apex's ability to move around beyond the arc and get open shots. Apex was forced out of its comfort zone during its 21-point first half. Still, Neal said his team stayed in the game by playing great defense on Council, who scored just eight first-half points.
Council would go on to lead Northern with 21 points in the game, and Barkley scored 18.
The Knights' season comes to an end after the team lost just one regular-season game, won the Pac-6 4-A conference title, benefited from the star power of Council and watched Barkley, a junior, emerge as one of the best players in the Triangle. With Council having played his last high school game, Russell said it would be hard to see him leave.
"We came a long way with him," Russell said. "He showed us a lot of leadership, some of the guys developed a lot of character, and he’s got good character. A lot of it came from the senior bunch now--the leadership and the character they have. All of these guys are great guys."
The Cougars will advance to the regional round of the state playoffs. They are set to play the Clayton Comets--who defeated Broughton in the third round Friday night--in their next game. The game will be played Friday in Fayetteville. The game time has not yet been announced.
Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT
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