Mar 17, 2014
Often referred to by its residents as "the peak of good living," Apex can now also be known as the peak of 4-A high school basketball in North Carolina.
Behind 25 points from sophomore forward Ian Boyd and 22 more from senior guard T.J. Evans, the Apex High School Cougars rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit and made five clutch free throws in the final minute of play to defeat the Lake Norman Wildcats in Saturday night's 4-A boys' basketball state championship game at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, 62-59.
"I've always wondered what it would feel like, and it feels as good as I ever thought it would," said Apex head coach David Neal.
Just as the team has done all year, the Cougars kept their composure in the final eight minutes of play and battled back-and-forth with the Wildcats before eventually pulling away at the end.
Knotted at 42-42 shortly after the start of the fourth quarter, Apex took a two-point lead when Boyd drove to the paint and dished the ball out to a wide-open John Kitoko in the corner, who made a three-pointer to lift the team to a 49-47 advantage. On Apex's next possession, Boyd scored again to give the team a four-point cushion.
Still leading by four with about two minutes left, Evans hit a three-pointer from the top of the key, but Lake Norman's Trey Ford responded with a deep shot on the other end. That was when Evans responded with arguably the most important play of his three-year varsity career.
Driving to the hoop on Apex's next possession, Evan's hit a floater while drawing contact, getting sent to the line where he made a free throw to put Apex up 57-52.
With less than 30 seconds on the clock and Lake Norman attempting a final comeback, Kishawn Pritchett rose up for a three-pointer and Boyd swatted it away, grabbing the rebound and getting fouled. He made both free throws.
"It was the defensive play of the game," Neal said. "The plays he made on both ends were, I thought, legendary in a championship atmosphere."
With eight seconds on the clock, Evans made two more free throws to seal the 62-59 victory and give Apex its first state championship title in the history of the program.
After the game, an emotional Neal sat with Evans, Boyd and starting point guard T.J. Wells.
"These three guys are three of the best high school basketball players that I have ever seen," Neal said. "We are very blessed to have them at Apex, they wanted it real bad, I’m really, really excited for them and I think they deserved it."
There were moments, however, when the Apex title win was shadowed in doubt. After Apex got off to a good start, Lake Norman finished the first quarter on a 7-0 run behind four points from 6-foot-9 forward Hunter Seacat. The Wildcats led 18-16 after the first quarter.
Lake Norman kept the drive alive in the second quarter when David Scott hit a three-pointer on his first look of the period. The team finished the second quarter strong as well and they led 33-25 at halftime.
In the third quarter, Boyd came alive to score 13 of his 25 points. Aside from two points from Evans, Boyd was the only Cougar to score in the quarter. The Cougars trailed 42-40 heading into the final quarter of play.
"I just thought Ian was phenomenal on both ends of the floor tonight, especially in the second half," Neal said. "He was too quiet in the first half. We needed him to be in attack mode."
On top of Boyd's breakout performance, the Cougars were also able to increase their defensive pressure in the second half. Apex finished the game with nine team steals to Lake Norman's five. The Cougars led the Wildcats 10-4 in points off turnovers.
Neal said Wells, who finished the game with just two points but had five assists and four steals, set the defensive tone for the team in the third quarter.
"To be honest, I just do whatever my team and my coach tells me I need to do," Wells said. "Whether that’s help on the big man even though he’s a foot and a half taller than me, or pressure the guard until I can’t breathe anymore… I’m just trying to help the team win no matter what it is."
In addition to Apex's star performances, Davis Dupree scored eight points off the bench for the Cougars. Dupree's 6-foot-5 height helped in key minutes of the first half as the team attempted to control Lake Norman's size. Kitoko finished the game with three points and Majid Raji scored two.
Evans was voted the team's Most Outstanding Player, while Boyd was named the Most Valuable Player of the game.
Seacat finished with a team-high 18 points and 14 rebounds for the Wildcats in the loss. Pritchett, the team's Most Outstanding Player, scored 17 points and Scott scored 14 points.
"It was a heck of a high school basketball game," said Lake Norman head coach Brandon Jolly. "Great atmosphere, two great teams battling it out, I thought we played extremely hard, I thought Apex played extremely hard, I thought both teams made a lot of great plays, and they just happened to make a couple more down the stretch than we did."
Lake Norman's season ends after the Wildcats posted an overall record of 28-2 and made its second state championship appearance in school history.
"It was a banner year for us... it just came up a few possessions short," Jolly said.
As for Apex, the Cougars now have a state championship under their belt after coming up short in the 2008 championship game, losing 72-63 to East Mecklenburg. Several of the players from the 2008 Cougar team were in attendance, seated directly behind the 2014 Cougars who finished out the dream that former players came so close to achieving.
"The fact that those guys are sitting right behind the bench pulling for them just as hard as the coaches are pulling for them, it just means so much to me," Neal said. "It’s hard to put into words all the support we get from our former players."
Similar to 2008's Apex team, this year's Cougars seemed a longshot at the beginning of the season to be the last 4-A basketball team standing. The team started the season with a 2-4 record before rallying in the second half of the year and finishing the season with a 23-7 record.
"Give all the glory to God," Wells said. "That’s the only person that could have straightened everything that was wrong with us out."
Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT