WINSTON-SALEM — This one will hurt for a long time to come.
In the last of four West Regional finals at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum that each featured a team from the same town — something that is thought to be unprecedented in North Carolina high school basketball history — Mount Airy led by 11 points in the third quarter against favored Lincoln Charter, and held a lead as late as 5:40 left in the game. With an arena filled with Granite Bear and North Surry fans cheering them on, the team took the game right to the buzzer.
On the game’s final play, the Bears’ Caleb Arrington was fouled attempting what would have been a game-tying 3-pointer, but the officials were out of position and missed the call as Lincoln Charter pulled out a 54-51 victory. On that play hinged a night that nearly saw all four local teams go through to the state championship game.
“We were trying to get Caleb an open look,” said Mount Airy head coach Levi Goins. “I didn’t have a good look at the play, but I know it didn’t work out for us.
“It was one of those things where you don’t want to put yourself in that position.”
Mount Airy ended its longest state playoff run in more than 25 years with an overall record of 25-7. The loss ended the stellar Bear careers of seniors Will Sparks, Harrison Joyce and Jackson Smith.
The Bears took advantage of what Lincoln Charter head coach Brad Gabriel admitted was a bad defensive alignment on his part and controlled the action for most of the first half. Gabriel decided to approach Mount Airy with the same gameplan he’d used to defeat No. 1-ranked Winston-Salem Prep on Tuesday night, but after the Eagles (29-4) took an early 10-6 lead, the Bears responded with an 8-0 run to end the opening period, including two driving layups from Donavon Greene and a three from Harrison Joyce to take a 14-10 lead.
Lincoln Charter responded with four quick points to open the second quarter, but the Bears stood their ground and regained the lead on a 14-footer by Arrington. The lead went to six when Greene scored off an alley-oop at the 4:30 mark, and to eight when Arrington hit a three with 1:22 before the break. No one scored for the rest of the second quarter, which ended with the Bears ahead 27-19.
After the break, Greene picked up a quick third foul, but Mount Airy was able to overcome that. When Sparks went coast-to-coast with a rebound at the 4:19 mark of the third quarter, the Bears pushed the lead to 10 for the first time, at 36-26. They reached their high-water mark on an Arrington free throw at 3:19, leading 38-27. When Lincoln Charter’s star point guard Kody Shubert picked up a fourth personal foul not long after, things looked good for the Bears.
However, it proved not to be. By this time, more Bears than just Greene were in foul trouble, and the Eagles started to take advantage, driving the ball to the basket and more often than not, getting the favorable nod on borderline block/charge calls. Lincoln Charter ended the quarter on a 10-2 run and trailed just 40-37 as the teams headed to the final quarter.
“We got into foul trouble late with so many people, and they started to penetrate and we couldn’t do anything about it,” said Goins.
The first few minutes of the fourth quarter turned out badly for the Bears, who scored three baskets, one a 3-pointer, only to see them all waved off on foul calls. The Eagles finally took the lead on a driving layup by Levontae Knox with 6:53 to play, but the Bears picked themselves up off the deck and rallied to take a 46-43 lead after two free throws from Arrington at the 5:54 mark. But Shubert, who averaged 21 points per game for Lincoln this season, answered with a three to tie it. They went on a run of their own and led 52-47 with 3:05 to play, but Ryan Graham picked up two free throws and then Arrington fired a three that would have tied the game if it hadn’t rattled out. Still, the Bears kept it close with tough defense. With 21 seconds left, Graham hit a runner to make the score 52-51, and then Mount Airy stole the ball away and took it the other way looking for the winning basket, only to see Shubert steal it back at midcourt. He was fouled and made two free throws with 5.2 seconds left.
On the final sequence of the night, the Bears raced the ball across the court and Arrington had an open 21-footer from the right wing, but the defender hooked his arm around Arrington’s left and altered the shot, which missed everything as the buzzer sounded.
Donavon Greene led the Bears with 15 points and 19 rebounds. Graham added 13 and Arrington nine. Knox led the Eagles with 18. Shubert added 14 and London England had 13.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.