Although Mount Airy’s boys’ basketball team entered the NCHSAA 1A state playoffs as the 11th seed, it wouldn’t shock any knowledgeable observer to see the Granite Bears in Saturday’s regional final.
The specific match-up that fans at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum will see tonight at 6 p.m. probably wasn’t expected by very many people, however.
In order for Mount Airy and Lincoln Charter to meet each other for the right to represent the West in next week’s 1A state championship game, both teams had to avenge defeats they had suffered during the 2016 playoffs, and do so in the other team’s gym. For the Bears, this meant returning to Avery County, while for the Eagles, it meant a showdown with the state’s top-ranked team, Winston-Salem Prep. The Phoenix had beaten Lincoln Charter with a last-second shot in last year’s West Regional finals, but on Tuesday night, the Eagles went into the Prep gym and led essentially from wire to wire in upsetting the Phoenix 75-65.
In the meantime, Mount Airy spanked the Vikings 80-66 in Newland, and the stage was set for a regional final that few had anticipated.
Certainly, while the Bears (25-6) believed and expected to get this far, they thought they would be facing the Phoenix for a fourth time — not something they were looking forward to after losing to them three times, including two by double-digit margins.
“Any team you play at this time of the year is going to be very good,” said Mount Airy coach Levi Goins. “When we found out Lincoln Charter won, we just said ‘it happened.’ We weren’t expecting them to win at Prep, but considering that they’re both very good teams, we did think it could go either way.”
While the Bears are grateful to have Winston-Salem Prep out of their way, facing Lincoln Charter (28-4) is no easy task, either. The Eagles are the state’s second-ranked 1A team, according to MaxPreps.com, with the Bears rated third. (Prep still holds the top spot due to its high strength of schedule.) Lincoln Charter won the Southern Piedmont 1A title this season with just one loss, and that came on Feb. 10, when the Eagles beat Bessemer City 82-70 but then had to forfeit the game because of a scheduling snafu that caused them to play one more game than the NCHSAA allowed during the regular season.
Lincoln Charter’s only legitimate losses this season were three games in the four-day Joe Miller Invitational just after Christmas in Wilmington, where the Eagles lost to Trinity Christian (59-58), Miami (Fla.) Country Day (60-56) and Oldsmar (Fla.) Christian (73-59) on three consecutive nights. One of the teams, Trinity Christian, lost in the NCISAA 1A championship game last week.
The Eagles are led by standout point guard Kody Shubert, a 6’0” junior who averages about 21 points and seven assists per game, and they have an excellent inside-outside tandem with 6’8” junior Jehlon Johnson in the middle. Johnson (8.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg) played a key role in the win over Prep, with eight points and 14 rebounds in the win. He was credited with an excellent performance against Prep big man Zaire Williams on Tuesday, avenging a personal setback from a year ago, when Williams got him into foul trouble early and then dominated the paint.
“They’re very athletic,” said Goins. “They have Shubert at the point, Johnson inside, and they have three very capable guards who are good athletes and good shooters.”
Lincoln Charter usually plays zone defense, but the Eagles surprised Prep with a man-to-man alignment, believing this gave them a better chance of containing Williams. In Gastonia-area media outlets this week, the Eagles were noncommittal about whether or not they might also try it against the Bears.
In some ways, it’s a game that Mount Airy will have to approach in the same way they did back in December, when the Bears faced several 4A foes in the SouthData Classic and in the Frank Spencer Holiday Classic. They will need outstanding performances on the inside from Donavon Greene and Jackson Smith, and will also need to dictate pace of play.
“We have to rebound very well, and we have to limit their second-chance opportunities,” said Goins. “We’ve got to score in transition and make this an up-and-down game.”
The winner of this game will play either Kestrel Heights or Riverside-Martin for the state championship next Saturday. Those two teams are playing for the 1A East crown at Methodist University today at noon. Next week’s championship games are being held at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill and Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.