Mar 10, 2014
As a freshman at Apex High School, T.J. Evans led the junior varsity basketball team to a very successful season, he led the team in scoring, and he turned heads with his talent.
The following year Evans was in a gym class taught by varsity basketball coach David Neal
"I went in there and I asked him, 'Has there ever been a sophomore conference player of the year?' and he said, 'No,'" Evans said. "I said, 'Well, I'm going to do it.'"
And that's what he did.
Apex played Broughton in Evans' first ever varsity game.
"I was extremely nervous. My palms were just so sweaty. My mind was everywhere, but once I hit my first shot, I just felt comfortable," Evans said.
Once he made his first shot, others fell quickly. Evans scored 26 points in his first ever varsity appearance.
"I remember it well ... We had T.J. Wells on Devonte Graham to start that game, and that match-up was giving up a lot of size, so we made a switch in the middle of the game and put T.J. Evans on him. He did a tremendous job limiting Devonte's scoring that game," Neal said.
It was after that game that Neal believed he had a truly special player in Evans.
"I remember going into the locker room after the game and I said, 'There were a lot of good players out there, but you were the best player on the floor tonight,'" said Neal. "I just thought it was an incredible way to start his varsity career."
Evans went on to be named the conference player of the year that season, just like he said he would. Since then, he has started in 89 consecutive games for the Cougars, and has been named the conference player of the year every season.
"He's just as steady as anybody I've ever seen," Neal said.
The previous two seasons, Evans has watched hopes of a playoff run slip away in the third round, and this season he was determined not to see that happen again.
At the beginning of this season Evans made another proclamation – Apex would compete for a state championship.
"I knew from the beginning of the season that we had what it takes. We came into every game expecting to win, not matter who it was," Evans said.
Apex played at Northern Durham in the third round of the playoffs, a team that many picked as a favorite in the east. Evans said Neal's pregame speech stuck.
"I remember coach saying before the Northern Durham game, 'I believe in you guys, I put all my trust in you guys, and I wouldn't want any other team,'" Evans said. "I took the same attitude into regionals and no matter who we play we can win."
Regionals featured two more close games for the Cougars. Apex had to come from behind to force overtime against Clayton in the regional semifinal, then the Cougars faced Millbrook in the regional championship – another favorite in the east, and a team that beat Apex by double-digits earlier in the season.
Millbrook led much of the game and was holding onto a lead in the fourth quarter. Minutes away from what could have been the end of his high school career, Evans took over.
"I looked at the scoreboard, I saw how much time was left, and I just thought, 'We've been through so much, we made it here, and I don't want this to be my last game,'" Evans said. "I looked deep down for everything I had."
Evans took over in the fourth quarter.
"My dad's always told me you play good sometimes, you play bad sometimes, but sometimes you have to know when to take over the game," said Evans. "I started realizing they were calling fouls a lot, so I started driving."
Evans scored nine points in the fourth quarter, giving Apex the lead late, and then hit a handful of free throws to help seal the win. For the game, Evans was 11-of-11 from the free throw line.
"It just happens. It's not something you can tell yourself to do, your teammates can't tell you, your coach can't teach you how to do it. It just happens. It's just an in the moment type of thing," Evans said.
His fourth quarter performance helped lift Apex to a win over Millbrook. It avenged an earlier loss to the Wildcats, but more importantly it meant the Cougars would play for the state championship.
It was the last chance of Evans to make his state championship dreams come true, and he took advantage.
"I've been dreaming about this since I stepped foot on Apex's campus, and to be here after all these years, I'm just so happy," Evans said. "Coach Neal deserves this, my teammates deserve this, and I'm just happy we can be in the spotlight."
You don't have to remind Evans that Saturday will be his last game at Apex, regardless if the team wins or loses.
"It's going to be hard. It's going to be bittersweet. I love Coach Neal, I love playing for him, and I love Apex. It's going to be tough," Evans said. "I've talked to couple of my friends who play football and they say it's weird not having practice, not having games."
Neal said Evans is the school's all-time leading scorer. He has averaged 20 points per game for three seasons, and he seldom comes out of games.
"He's just a special player. He's been incredibly consistent ... People get a lot of attention for scoring points, but he also is a big time defender for us," Neal said. "I call him a warrior because he doesn't come out of the game for 32 minutes, he chases the other team's best player the whole game, and he's still putting up 20 points a game. I find it amazing."
Neal is also aware this weekend's game will be the last for seniors like Evans. Neal said he's been thinking a lot about the seniors on his 2008 team that lost in the state championship.
"Tim Plummer led us to the state championship in 2008. T.J. Evans has led us here this year. I just remember looking down the bench at Tim Plummer at the end of that game. He had the towel over his head," Neal said. "I don't want to see these seniors end like that."
Evans isn't thinking about losing though. He's thinking about winning on Saturday.
"I've thought about that moment pretty much every day this year. I've thought about us playing in the coliseum, I've thought about us winning it every day," Evans said. "I just think it would be awesome; not just for me, but for Coach Neal, and T.J. Wells, and Ian Boyd, and everyone else on the team. I don't even know what to say right now just thinking about it ... I get worked up just talking about it."
Perhaps that's because reality is setting it. For one last time on Saturday Evans will wear the Apex uniform, and this time he could get the biggest basketball win in school history.
"We made it here, but we don't want to say we made it to the state championship and lost. We want freshmen who come to open house to look up and see the banner and hear the stories about that team," said Evans. "Once you win a championship, that goes down in history, and that's never going to go away."
At some point though, Evans knows he will have to step away from Apex.
"It's going to take awhile for me to get over the fact that I will never put that Apex jersey on again. I've loved my four years here," he said. "I think if we are able to go out with a state championship though, that will make it a little easier."
Neal wants to send the Class of 2014 out the same way.
"It would just mean so much to these guys," Neal said. "It would be the fairytale ending."
Follow Nick Stevens on Twitter @NickStevensHSOT