Third-seeded Harnett Central stunned top-seeded Southern Lee with a 52-50 victory in the championship game of the Tri-County Six 3-A Conference boys basketball tournament at Union Pines on Wednesday night.
“Coach (Will) Gage just gave us the game plan and we did what he said and it got us the win,” said Harnett Central senior Justin Perkins. “We talked about getting a banner at the beginning of the year and that’s all we’ve been chasing all year.”
Harnett Central boys coach Will Gage said the win gave Harnett Central its first-ever conference tournament championship.
“The school opened in 1977 and has never won the conference tournament in men’s basketball,” Gage said. “We talked about a couple of goals and one of them was, you get your year on a banner, people can lie about glory days all they want to, if the year’s up there, it speaks for itself. We played back-to-back-to-back (three games in three days). We had every reason in the world to fold.
“I thought that guys came off the bench that, even if they were in two-and-a-half minutes, made contributions. Everybody did what they needed to do. I thought defensively we had a good game plan last night (a 54-37 win over No. 2 Lee County at Southern Lee) and I thought defensively we had a good game plan tonight. But the guys have got to buy in and carry it out. You can have the best plan in the world, but I thought they played well and they surely didn’t play like they’d played three games in three nights.”
The loss is Southern Lee’s only conference loss on the season and the first since a 48-45 loss at Triton in the conference opener last season, snapping a 22-game conference win streak.
The Trojans (13-11) had plenty to prove coming into the conference tournament. In the preseason coaches’ meeting, Central was picked to finish last place, but finished third in the regular season. The Trojans also came into the tournament as a bubble team for the NCHSAA 3-A state playoffs, but earned an automatic bid by winning the tournament championship.
“It feels good,” Perkins said. “The playoffs were the goal the whole year. They (at the preseason coaches’ meeting) counted us sixth in-conference and we finished third.”
“Five coaches in the conference voted us to be last,” added Harnett Central senior Austin Swan. “Well, they see us now.”
A trio of seniors scored in double figures for the Trojans. Justin Perkins had a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Tre Williams had 13 points, four rebounds and three assists. Austin Swan had 11 points.
“Even when you’re on the bench, you’ve got to be ready when your name is called,” Swan said. “And the shots were falling, so I started feeling good. Honestly, it’s just confidence and being confident with the ball.”
Swan and Perkins also play baseball together and are long-time friends, something both said aids them while playing.
“We’ve known each other since forever,” Swan said.
“We’ve been playing together for as long as I can remember, baseball and basketball,” Perkins added.
“Chemistry is amazing, honestly,” Swan continued. “Knowing what each other is going to do before we do it.”
Anthony Tomlinson had eight points, three assists and five rebounds.
With Tomlinson and senior Croix Shipman both fouling out and Perkins and Edwards also in foul trouble, Central had to go deeper on the bench than usual, playing a total of nine different players in the contest. Gage said all nine made some kind of contribution that was vital to the win.
“Ant fouling out is huge and then Croix does a little bit of everything fairly well for us and that’s huge,” Gage said. “That allows people to come in and help out and they’ve got to step up. We got multiple contributions and the guys bought in and rooted for each other and I thought it was a good atmosphere. I appreciate our folks coming this far and they were really into the game.”
Junior Randall Upchurch, Jr. had 21 points to pace the Cavaliers (15-10).
The first half was a back-and-forth battle, with Central leading 14-10 at the end of the first quarter, but Southern Lee rallying to lead 25-23 at halftime.
The first half ended with some controversy, as in the waning seconds, Southern Lee’s Quashawn Williams blocked a shot out of bounds and possession was given to the Trojans. But on the inbounds play, it was Southern Lee who inbounded the ball and hit a three at the buzzer. But during the play, one of the officials recognized the wrong team had been given the ball and disallowed the basket, had time put back on the clock and gave the ball to Central.
In the confusion, an additional basket had been taken off the board and the scoreboard showed a 23-23 tie, as initially confirmed by both teams’ scorekeepers. But during the half, the Southern Lee scorekeeper (the official book, as the Cavaliers were the designated home team), rechecked her scoring, which showed the Cavaliers leading 25-23 and the score was corrected before the start of the second half.
Central came out hot to start the third, with a Perkins three on the opening possession sparking a 9-0 run. Central maintained a 38-33 lead heading into the fourth quarter, which began with both fanbases all on their feet, loudly cheering on their respective teams.
With Central holding a 43-37 lead midway through the fourth, a pair of Upchurch free throws, which came at the expense of Shipman’s fifth foul, started the Cavaliers on an 11-4 run, for a 48-47 lead on a Se’Vion Clay free throw with 1:27 remaining.
After Central missed a shot on the other end, sophomore Quez Jones, who was pulled up from the junior varsity team on Tuesday and was playing in just his second varsity game, got a steal and passed to Swan for a go-ahead layup. A second Quez Jones steal led to a 2-for-2 trip to the free throw line for Perkins to push the lead to three with 35.9 seconds left.
“Quez was pulled up yesterday,” Gage said. “He scored two points in his first game yesterday and how many defensive plays did he make for us tonight?”
After Upchurch scored to cut the lead to one, Tre Williams was fouled and made one of the ensuing free throws with 5.9 seconds left. Defensive pressure from Jones on the ensuing play forced a Southern Lee turnover with just over two seconds left.
On the ensuing inbounds play, Southern Lee’s Quashawn Williams was called for a technical foul for knocking the ball out of the hands of Swan before he could make the inbounds pass. Swan missed both free throws, but on the following inbounds play, he found a wide-open Edwards, who caught the pass and ran out the clock to secure the win and the tournament championship.
No. 2 Harnett Central struggled in a 52-32 loss to top-seeded host Union Pines in the Tri-County Six 3-A Conference girls basketball tournament championship.
“Basically, what it comes down to is Union Pines is a team full of athletes that are disciplined and they do the small thing and the fundamentals of basketball,” said Harnett Central girls coach Chelsey Cabe. “And my girls didn’t do those things tonight. Something as simple as pump fakes or bounce passes or keeping your hands up on defense, talking on defense. We got beat in transition. It’s just the small things that make a huge difference and I told them that would be the deciding factor. They were disciplined tonight, Union Pines. You can’t take away from them how well they played. And defensively, we crumbled under their pressure and couldn’t take care of the ball. And against a zone, you need to be able to move without the ball and we didn’t do that, either.”
Junior Syniah McMiller had 25 points to lead the Trojans (18-5), Lya Molyneaux had four points and Brittany Mills had three points.
Seniors Kaley Evans and Molly Schmitz had 14 points apiece and junior Emily Bowbliss had 13 points to lead the Vikings (19-7).
Central took an early 4-1 lead, but the Vikings answered by ending the first quarter on a 15-3 run and led the rest of the way, also outscoring Central 10-6 in the second quarter, 8-6 in the third and 18-13 in the fourth.
Harnett Central’s boys will receive an automatic bid to the NCHSAA 3-A state playoffs as the conference tournament champion and the girls are projected to receive an at-large bid. Seeding for the playoffs was postponed to Sunday, to allow more time for crucial tiebreaking games that may be postponed because of the threat of snow.