Mar 11, 2014
No matter how you size it up, the Kinston Vikings have one of the most prestigious basketball programs in North Carolina.
On Saturday afternoon at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, the Vikings will make their 20th all-time state championship appearance. Kinston is the two-time 2-A defending state champion. The team also won titles in 2010, 2008, and several through the 1950s and 60s.
It is easy to see why opponents of the Vikings may be intimidated when taking the court against the historical heavyweight. Led by 6-foot-8 junior forward Brandon Ingram, who has an offer from North Carolina and attention from Duke, the current Vikings are just as menacing as their championship pedigree suggests.
When the North Rowan Cavaliers go head-to-head with Kinston in this week's title game however, head coach Andrew Mitchell says the mental aspect of the game will be even more important than matching up with players on the court.
"It’s more mental than it is physical," Mitchell said. "Somehow or way we have to put in our minds and figure out a way to reduce Kinston down to every other opponent that we played and not come in and fear Kinston as a three-time state champion in the last four years with a 6-foot-8 guy who’s going to Carolina or Duke.
"All that is great but we have to put in our minds—I guess you can’t call them just another team, but it’s another game where we have to go in and play hard and execute our system."
Kinston comes into the game with an overall 25-5 record this season. While Ingram is the top player in North Carolina's class of 2015, the team is also led by talented point guard Andrew Lopez, who made the 2-A all-regional team last week in Fayetteville.
Still, the Cavs feel they are on the state's biggest stage for a reason. At 22-5 this season, the team is led by 6-foot-4 guard Michael Bowman. Starting alongside Bowman is Michael Connor Jr., a guard who is averaging more than 20 points per game over the team's last 15 games. The program also has championship experience of its own. The team won the 2011 1-A state championship over Pender.
"I’m just thankful to finally get back," Mitchell said. "More than anything it’s a good feeling to see players smile and see our fans smile and just people in general happy to be back in the state championship game. That’s what makes me feel the best and that’s why we work as hard as we do."
One factor Mitchell feels works in favor of his team is the level of difficulty during the Cavs' most previous wins. In the third round of the state playoffs, North Rowan defeated Shelby in overtime. In the regional round, the team defeated East Rutherford by three points before beating undefeated and top-seeded Smoky Mountain in the western regional final.
Kinston, on the other hand, has won ten games since its last single-digit margin of victory, a Feb. 7 road win against conference opponent Greene Central.
"It does help," Mitchell said. "We know that if you play for 32 minutes, there’s always a chance, regardless of what the score is. A lot of times when you have blowouts all the way through, then when you get in a tight one in the state game you tend to tense up and tighten up, so I think it will have us prepared to where we just have to come in and play ball for 32 minutes and see what happens."
As far as individual match-ups on the court once the ball tips later in the week, Mitchell says he has a few possibilities for containing Ingram. North Rowan has plenty of size with 6-foot-8 senior Dalton Nelson and 6-foot-5 senior Kenyon Tatum.
"These guys know that they’re going to have to play well and going to have to step up and try to help neutralize their big guy if they’re going to have a chance to win their final state championship as high school players," said Mitchell. "I’m sure they’ll do anything and everything they can do to try to keep this young man in check."
Another piece of the North Rowan puzzle to watch in the coming days will be the status of guard Alexis Archie, who has been hurt with a minor knee injury and sat out of the western regional final win. Mitchell says he hopes Archie will be back for the state championship. While not as tall as Ingram, Mitchell said Archie can defend players with more size because of his athleticism and jumping ability.
Finally, 6-foot-4 center Alex Billingsley will be a part of the rotation to guard Ingram in the paint.
"He wears a size-17 shoe, so by Saturday he could grow to be 6'5" or 6'6"," Mitchell said. His dad is 6'10", 6'11", so we’re hoping by Saturday he can grow another three or four inches."
In preparation for the season's biggest game, Mitchell's overall message about his team is that the North Rowan Cavaliers will not fear Kinston.
"I like this team because they respond to just about any challenge, and we’re able to make on the floor adjustments and halftime adjustments simply because we have a good group of young men and they listen and pay attention and they want to win," he said.
The Cavaliers will have a chance to upset the Kinston Vikings and put an end to their streak Saturday afternoon at 2:30.
Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT
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