GREENSBORO — The clock struck midnight on East Surry’s Cinderella run through the basketball playoffs.
The Cardinals advanced all the way to the West Regional title game before falling to Winston-Salem Prep 59-43 Saturday afternoon.
The Cards led most of the first half and trailed by just two points until the Phoenix made a shot just before the buzzer for a 30-26 halftime lead. Then Prep steadily pulled away in the second half.
The Cards lost 11 games in the regular season, but put together four wins to make it an all-Northwest regional with the Phoenix.
With Bishop McGuinness playing in the girls’ regional final, the Northwest Conference made up three of the four teams here in the Fleming Gymnasium at UNC-Greensboro.
Yes, the Cardinals finished with 12 losses, but half of those came at the hands of Prep and West Stokes, the top two teams in the conference, noted Coach Jason Anderson.
West Stokes advanced to the sectional final, and South Stokes gave North Rowan all it could handle for a half, Anderson pointed out.
“We know our conference is that strong,” he said. “Having two representatives in the regional final describes just how tough it is.”
One reporter courtside remarked of East Surry, “Weren’t they like a 12th seed?”
Actually, the Cards were seeded 14th. But when he looked at the brackets, Anderson felt like his team had a chance to go deep.
East Surry beat Elkin by 22 and North Wilkes by 15 in the first two rounds. Then they showed they could pull out some close ones in the fourth quarter by beating Hayesville by three and Hendersonville by eight.
In Saturday’s game, the Cards jumped out to an early five-point lead on the favored Phoenix, who needed double overtime to squeeze past North Rowan.
Scott Meredith didn’t shoot well on Friday, but came out and hit the first shot of the game.
Prep got a fast break, and Mike Hughes finished it with a dunk. However, he hung on the rim and was called for a technical.
Meredith hit both free throws and then a pullup jumper for a 6-2 lead.
East Surry built a 10-5 lead after Eli Gilbert hit two free throws with 4:52 left.
Gilbert was 6-6 at the line in the first half, and the Cardinals were 11-12 as a team.
Then Prep’s Omar Roseboro scored, Prep stole the ball back and Will Tibbs scored to cut the lead to one.
East Surry led after one quarter 14-13.
East Surry wanted to control the pace and slow the tempo, said Prep Coach Andre Gould. Considering how tired his team was after that double-overtime game, the coach said he was content to let the pace be slow at the start.
The lead remained one until Meredith hit a deep shot three minutes into the second quarter for a 19-15 lead.
Meredith hit 4-8 shots in the first half, including 2-5 from three-point range.
At 21-17, Prep went on a 9-0 run to take a 28-21 lead.
East Surry didn’t let the game get out of hand. Meredith hit a three and Gilbert two free throws to close to 30-26 at the half.
While the Cards kept the score close, it may have come at a cost. Meredith and Gilbert never sat down, and Drew Alley and Tyler Pardue only rested two minutes.
On the other side, Gould wanted to keep his starters fresh and substituted freely. Hughes and Omar Roseboro played just nine minutes each, and point guard RaeKwon Harney sat for four minutes.
Then in the second half, Hughes and Harney stayed on the floor the entire time, coming out only in the last 30 seconds when both coaches cleared the benches.
After shooting well on Friday, East Surry struggled from the floor, shooting just 28 percent. Meredith went cold in the second half, going 1-7, all on three-point tries.
East had seven offensive rebounds in the first half, which compensated for the shooting. However, the Cards had just one offensive board in the second half. Prep outrebounded East 21-12 in the second half.
“The past two ball games we’ve basically played with six or seven guys,” said Anderson. He noticed the fatigue on some of the loose balls that his team didn’t quite reach and some of the shots that bounced off the front of the rim.
“I have to think it has something to do with legs,” said Anderson, not because of any lack of desire.
Aaron Lipscomb was Prep’s top scorer in the first half, hitting three long shots for nine points.
Prep is really dangerous, so teams have to pick their poison, the coach said. He tried a few different defensive looks, including a diamond-and-one, but Lipscomb still found some holes.
Then the shooter came out in the third with two pump fakes and drives to score the first four points. That put Prep up 34-26.
A steal and a layup by Hughes put the lead at double digits as 39-28. The third quarter would end with Prep up 47-37. East never got the lead back to single digits.
Hughes finished with a game-high 18 points to go with four steals, five boards and a block. He was named regional MVP.
“I was very sore (Saturday) morning,” Hughes said after Friday’s long game.
As for his 14 points in the second half, Hughes said, “Coach Gould tells me all the time to be more aggressive.”
After Hendersonville’s soft interior defense Friday night, the Cards found a much more physical Phoenix team. Prep made 15 steals, blocked six shots and altered several others.
“It’s always a goal to be strong inside,” said Gould. “My motto is ‘tough players win.’ I want to be tough in all five spots.”
As for East Surry’s playoff run, Gould said he saw the Cards running the same offenses and defenses as the regular season, but they were much more efficient in the playoffs.
The Cards certainly aren’t a bad team, he noted, but Prep is a school on a mission.
“This team has a lot to prove,” he said.
East Surry looked to have about twice as many fans in attendance as Prep, something Gould noticed.
Maybe people thought Prep had already won the regional on Friday night, he said, but his biggest fear was that his squad would have a letdown since it had beaten East Surry twice in the regular season.
While East Surry shot poorly from long range, the Cards were a stellar 15-18 (83 percent) from the charity stripe.
UNC-Greensboro has a much bigger gymnasium than East Surry, which might have had an effect on the shooting.
Actually, it seemed a little easier to shoot here, said senior Drew Alley. The bright, open court felt nice, he said.
And the atmosphere was great with the fans there, added Gilbert.
As for taking on the top-seeded Phoenix, Alley said, “We came to play. We didn’t come just to be here.”
While fatigue might have affected some players, Alley said, “The adrenaline gets the best of you, I could have played all night.” Gilbert readily agreed.
“Drew is a fighter,” said Anderson. “That’s something I saw in him since he was 10 years old coming out to our youth camps at East Surry.”
Alley finished with 11 points, three assists and four steals. In a game where East had 17 turnovers, Alley didn’t have a single one.
Gilbert scored eight points and added four boards, a block and a steal.
Eli gets his hands on a lot of balls, said Anderson. Bishop’s girls coach, Brian Robinson, was watching Friday’s game and later told Anderson he was amazed at how often Gilbert touched the ball, whether blocking shots or deflecting passes.
It took some time to get Eli to shoot, but his increased scoring in the playoffs is one of the reasons the team did so well, the coach said.
The two seniors made the all-regional team along with Meredith, a junior.
Meredith totalled 28 points in the two games. The 6-foot-1 guard came up with eight rebounds to go with his 16 points, three assists and two steals Saturday.
Scott missed some games this season, the coach said. He had a dislocated finger and then a concussion. Some of those 11 losses in the regular season came when he was out, but even then the boys kept the scores close, he said.
“I wish prep the best of luck,” said Anderson. “I hope they represent our conference well.”
Winston-Salem Prep (32-1) takes on Rocky Mount Prep (24-3) Saturday in Reynolds Coliseum at N.C. State University.