by Aaron Garcia
RALEIGH – For the first time all afternoon, N.C. State University’s Reynolds Coliseum took a break from its deafening roar and fell silent as Shelton Mitchell’s last-gasp 3-point attempt floated through the air. But unfortunately for the Cuthbertson boys basketball team and its throng of fans that made the trip to Raleigh for the Class 2A state title game against Kinston, it was the other team’s supporters who broke the silence in celebration.
Kinston won the game, and the state championship, 58-55, on March 10. But for three and a half quarters, the Cavs were the best 2A team in the state.
From the opening possession, which resulted in a Cavs’ steal and a slick Emmitt Afam layup, the final had all the hallmarks of the types of performances that earned Cuthbertson its 31-1 record entering the championship game. Through the first three quarters, the Cavs led, 48-42, after forcing 17 turnovers and collecting eight steals.
Not bad for a program in its third year facing a team looking for its third state title since 2008 and eighth overall.
But the fourth quarter belonged to the Vikings, as they kept the Cavs to just seven points and held sophomore Mitchell, who led all scorers with 22 points, scoreless. Kinston outrebounded the Cavs, 6-3, down the stretch and 31-19 for the game, including 14 offensive rebounds.
“I thought the big difference in this ball game is we got ‘out-physicaled,’” said Cuthbertson coach Mike Helms. “They did a great job offensive rebounding. We gave them a lot of second-chance points, which in the end was difficult for us to overcome.”
The loss was an unfortunate end to an otherwise superlative campaign that saw the Cavs tear through the regular season with a 23-1 mark (which included a 14-0 record in the Rocky River 1A/2A conference) and a league tournament title.
All this for a still-growing Cuthbertson program that had a starting lineup consisting of four juniors and a sophomore.
“All those wins we had during the season really just boosted our confidence, and we felt like we were on top of the world,” said junior Jorden Hardrick-Givens. “It helped us a lot chemistry-wise with all of us coming together as a whole. The run we had in the state playoffs was great. It really just brought us together.”
And while the Cavs appeared heartbroken after the loss, Helms said it wouldn’t be long before the players were back in the gym working for next season.
“There’s so much character in this group and resolve and toughness,” Helms said. “We’ve got a couple of kids with baby faces, but they’re a lot tougher than they look.”
Helms added that the experience surrounding the Cavs’ run to the title game should prove invaluable as the team moves forward.
“I think it’s going to be easier (next time),” Helms said. “Now you’ve been on the biggest stage you can be on in North Carolina, and I think we handled it pretty well. We can build on that.”
Mitchell agreed and said it was another reason to be excited about next season, considering all but one senior is slated to return.
“Just to have that record and to make it all the way to the state championship game playing all juniors and sophomores, I think that’s good,” said Mitchell. “We’re basically using (this loss) as motivation for next year because we know we have everyone back.
“(Losing the championship) doesn’t really take away that much from the experience because we still made it (to the title game), and no one really thought we were going to make it. But we’re just using it as motivation to come in stronger next year.”