SMITHFIELD — Neuse Charter School has an issue most teams only dream about having in their second year of existence. The Cougars, after a 58-46 boys basketball win over James Kenan on Thursday night, need to decide where to hang a championship banner in the Dr. Patricia Harris Gymnasium, really soon.
Behind a balanced scoring effort and another great night of defense, especially in the second half against the Tigers, Neuse Charter clinched the Carolina 1A Conference championship.
The Cougars, in their first year of NCHSAA play, will carry a 22-5 mark into the playoffs and finished the season 12-2 in conference play. Princeton, which beat Neuse Charter twice this season, is the Carolina 1A’s No. 2 playoff seed, while Kenan gets the third seed.
“To win a conference championship in our first year as an NCHSAA member is a dream come true,” said Neuse Charter coach Jimmie Sanders Jr. “These seniors have done all I’ve asked of them and we all wanted this (the championship) for them, even though we were only a second-year program.”
Senior Jarrod Sealey had a game-high 15 points for the Cougars in the win, while sophomores Devante Stevens and Darrius Stevens had eight points each and Jimmie Sanders III finished with seven.
Sealey is one of a half-dozen seniors on the Cougar roster along with Rock Wilson, Darrin Robinson, Jourdan Sanders, Tre’shon Charles and Kyle Austene.
Up just 27-26 at the break, Neuse Charter slowly pulled away in the third quarter. Kenan put up just eight points in the period.
“The last three games we’ve played very good defense,” Sanders Jr. said. “We’ve held all of our opponents in the 30s or 40s in those games. We just want to protect the paint and make perimeter guys beat us. We were worried about (No.) 51 (Nick Taylor) because he took over the game the first time we played.”
Offensively, the Cougars’ solid and consistent off-the-ball movement on offense started to create more high-percentage shots
“We talked about showing discipline on both ends of the court at the half,” Sanders Jr. said. “We didn’t have a lot of that in the first half. But we did a better job of handling things in the second half.”
John Brooks and Kashawn Ammons led Kenan with 12 each, but Brooks fouled out with three minutes to play and the Tigers down, 46-38.
Fouls were a theme for the night as the two teams rolled up 26 of them in the first half combined and Kenan finished with 30 team fouls. The Cougars went to the foul line 41 times on the night, knocking down 24 of those. Kenan was 10-of-13 from the foul line.
“Every time we play them, it’s like that,” Sanders Jr. said of Kenan. “This one was a thing of beauty compared to the first one we played against them this year. It’s two tough ball clubs who are both very athletic who play hard.
“We tried to value every possession, knowing it was going to be tough going no matter what.”
Kenan cut the lead to 42-36 on a Brooks basket early in the fourth quarter but the Cougars countered with a 10-2 scoring run to put the game away and set up a home playoff date in the first round.
“These guys have done everything I’ve asked them to do,” said Sanders Jr. “They’ve taken care of business to reach this goal of winning a conference championship, which was a big goal for us. Now we can try to reach some of the other goals we set, starting in the playoffs.”
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