Not too many people enjoy playing in, or watching for that matter, when the officiating takes front and center stage at a basketball game, and neither team can get into a groove.
Fortunately, the Mount Airy boys’ basketball team has had more than a few games that played out that way, and the experience paid off in the first round of the NCHSAA 1A state playoffs on Tuesday night.
The Granite Bears used a strong second half and solid play off the bench to overcome visiting Cherryville and win a game where 51 fouls were called — 28 of them on Mount Airy — and defeat the Ironmen 84-63 to advance to the second round.
“We got it done. I was proud of our guys, because they responded with grit in the second half,” said Mount Airy coach Levi Goins. “We caused some turnover and we finished a little better in the second half.”
Mount Airy, now 22-6 on the season, will host Pine Lake Prep on Thursday night. The Pride (15-11) knocked off Highlands 73-56 in a first-round game on Tuesday. With the Mount Airy girls also winning on Tuesday night, Thursday’s games should be another doubleheader starting at 6 p.m.
The Bears took the lead for good early on, when Ryan Graham sank two free throws to give Mount Airy a 12-11 lead with 2:56 left in the opening quarter. However, Cherryville (12-15), the 28th overall seed in the West half of the draw, didn’t just come to get a participation trophy. They had already showed the Bears that they would have to earn their ticket to the second round, No. 3 MaxPreps.com statewide ranking or not.
Caleb Arrington scored a layup three seconds into the contest, but then the Ironmen responded by taking the fight to Mount Airy. Over the next three minutes, Cherryville went on a 10-3 run, and when Trevor Harrill knocked down a 3-pointer in transition to give the visitors a 10-5 lead, Goins was forced to call time-out. Donavon Greene was one of the Bears who got the message to wake up, and he drove for a layup on the next possession, then got inside and made a free throw on the one after that. He missed the second try, but Harrison Joyce rebounded it and fired it to Jackson Smith, who took it to the basket. After Graham’s two free throws put Mount Airy back on top, Arrington grabbed a defensive rebound and went coast to coast with it. Jaiden Hunt answered for the Ironmen, but Arrington threw long to Gregory Greene on another fastbreak, and then he called his own number the next time down, hitting a three from the top of the key to cap a 14-3 run and put the Bears in front 19-13.
Still, Cherryville kept fighting back, and when the endless parade of fouls began to be called in the second quarter, the choppy nature of play kept Mount Airy from getting into any kind of offensive rhythm. The Bears got the lead to 10 points midway through the second, but Harrill and Landon Hudson made threes to keep the Ironmen in the game, and Mount Airy led just 41-32 at intermission.
The visitors opened the second half with baskets by Taveon Hardin and Hunt to chop the lead back to five, but Will Sparks lived up to his name on the Bears’ next two possessions. With 5:43 to go in the third, he stole the ball near midcourt and sailed in for a layup, then snared a loose ball the next time down and did the same thing, scoring uncontested to restore a nine-point lead and make Cherryville call time-out. Matt Cain hit a three moments later to bring the Ironmen back within seven at 46-39, but an 8-0 Mount Airy run followed, with Graham, Sparks and Donavon Greene all scoring before Joyce stole the ball under the basket and threw it long to Graham for an easy two points and the biggest lead of the game to that point, 54-39 with 3:01 to go in the third. The Bears kept a steady hand on the tiller and led 63-46 by the end of the third quarter.
“That team is capable of knocking a lot of shots down,” said Goins. “That’s who they are, and I’m glad that we did what it took defensively.”
The last highlight of the game came about two minutes into the final period, right after Goins had called a timeout with his team up by 18 points. Five seconds after the teams returned to the floor, Smith, who endured a frustrating game where he ultimately fouled out on several questionable calls, took a pass at the top of the key and threw an alley-oop pass to Donavon Greene, streaking down the baseline. The sophomore went high into the air, grabbed the pass and jammed it through to put the Bears up 20 and put an exclamation point on the win. He was also fouled in the process, but missed the free throw, only to see his partner in crime, Smith, run down the loose ball and gun in a 10-footer from the baseline to make it 70-48.
Reserves ended up playing out the string as Mount Airy extended its season by at least two more days.
Sparks led the team with 18 points despite also fouling out late. Graham added 17, Donavon Greene 14 and Arrington 12. Gregory Greene added eight off the bench. For the Ironmen, Hudson had 13, Hunt 12 and Harrill 11.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.