Chasing Glory

A look at this year’s hotly contested conference tournaments

by Aaron Garcia

The Sun Valley Spartans have been led by (from left) Tevin Graham, Shaun Stewart, Josh Pierre, coach Keith Mason, Isaiah Blanchett and Jalen Withspoon. (Aaron Garcia/UCW photo)

The Sun Valley boys basketball team’s senior class – headlined by the dynamic backcourt of Shaun Stewart and Jalen Witherspoon – has helped establish the Spartans as one of the most consistent in the state. Headed into their regular-season finale against Porter Ridge on Friday, Feb. 10, the Spartan seniors have led the program to more than 70 wins in their four years as starters and have established it as a perennial contender for the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference crown.

This year might be the best yet, as the Spartans possess an 19-4 overall record, a sparkling 9-0 league mark and an outright conference title.

But starting Monday, Feb. 13, coach Keith Mason’s club will try to accomplish one of the few feats that have eluded it during its recent run of success: a conference tournament championship.

The Spartans certainly seem to have a fair shot at pulling off the accomplishment, as they’ve won 11 consecutive games, including two each against fellow contenders Weddington and Anson in that stretch.

And they have star power. Stewart has been one of the most electric seniors in the state this season, as his 26.4 points, three steals, six assists and 6.5 rebounds per game attest, while Witherspoon might be North Carolina’s best-kept secret at 17 points per outing.

“I know they would not only love to have the conference championship, but have the tournament championship as well,” said Mason.

The Spartans lost three of their first 10 games to start the season, which was largely due to shuffling in first-time starters, said Mason. Now the team appears to have gelled while complementary pieces such as Tevin Graham, Isaiah Blanchett, Jacquez Johnson, Josh Pierre, Jay Rowell and Hakeem Polk have evolved into a more-than-capable supporting cast. Still, said Mason, any games the Spartans can get in before the state tournament will only help their cause.

“The more games we play and have under out belts, the better we get at playing together as a team,” said Mason. “That definitely sets us up for the state playoffs.”

Weddington, which will host the event, appears to be the other county team capable of vying for the tournament title, and expect the Warriors to be a little extra motivated after dropping three of their final four games to fall out of contention for the regular-season title.

“We just need to get back to winning,” said Warriors coach Gary Ellington, whose team enters its regular-season finale against Marvin Ridge on Friday with a 14-8 overall record and a 6-3 league mark.

“The kids aren’t hanging their heads, and that’s the most important thing. That could easily happen when you’re winning and all of a sudden you lose three out of four (games). They haven’t done that. They’ve stayed strong, and they’re excited about finishing the season strong.”

Ellington said that the heartache should be short-lived, as the team still has a chance to achieve one of its goals by winning the conference tournament. The Warriors will benefit from a group of steady seniors in Bennett Rutherford (more than 17 points per game), Julian Barber (10.8), Justyn McDonald (8.9) and 6-foot-6 forward Luke Peters (6.2). The Warriors have a size advantage in the blocks, as the rest of the conference lineups are guard-heavy.

“We always talk about (in the playoffs) everyone’s record is 0-0,” Ellington said. “It doesn’t matter what happened before. This is a whole new season.”

Aside from Anson (16-6, 6-3), the Marvin Ridge Mavericks (10-11, 4-5) also have a puncher’s chance at winning a tournament title. Winners of the last two conference tournaments, the Mavs are a dangerous squad with a capable point guard (Logan Jackson), a sharp-shooting swingman (Taylor Neal) and a pair of active forwards in K.C. Emezie and John Emezie. Throw in a roster with 16 players who have seen action, and the Mavs just might be capable of pulling off a surprise or two.

Though it appears as though Parkwood (6-13, 2-7) and Porter Ridge (2-19, 0-9) will finish outside of playoff contention, each can play its way into the state tournament by winning next week.

Rocky River 1A/2A

The Rocky River 1A/2A conference tournament, which starts Tuesday, Feb. 14, should be just as hotly contested as the Southern Carolina race. And like the Southern Carolina 3A/4A, the tournament begins with a prohibitive favorite in Cuthbertson.

The Cavs are 21-1 overall and boast a 12-0 conference record entering their regular-season finale against rival Piedmont. Led by sophomore Shelton Mitchell (24.1 points per game), the Cavs are deep (13 players average at least a point per game) and athletic and have won all season with defensive effort and strong shot selection. Expect coach Mike Helms’ club to be a little extra motivated after losing the championship game last season to Charlotte’s Berry Academy, which has since moved to a Mecklenburg County-based conference.

Helms said that although the Cavs have already earned a No. 1 seed in the upcoming Class 2A state playoffs, the team will use the conference tournament to sharpen its game, especially with the prospect of facing teams such as Monroe for a fourth time this season.

“When you play good teams and you’ve got to beat them multiple times, it gets a little harder each time,” said Helms.

Forest Hills (13-7, 10-2) and Monroe (11-9, 8-4) each have played taxing schedules and also are in good position to challenge for a tournament title if the Cavs stumble. The Yellow Jackets fell to Cuthbertson on Feb. 3, but the seven-point margin of victory was the Cavs’ smallest since a 58-54 win over Monroe on Jan. 3.

And though Monroe has lost three times to Cuthbertson this season, two of those losses came by a combined six points. And like the Cavs, each team makes up for a lack of height with blitzing team speed and swarming defense, led by Forest Hills’ Roshad Gibson and Jarvis Wilson and Monroe sophomores Brandon Roddy and Tre Shun Wynn.

Piedmont (10-11, 7-5), led by the inside-out duo of 6-6 forward Brady Meggs and sophomore point guard Qualen Blakney, also could be dangerous. But the Panthers still have to conclude their regular season on Friday against Cuthbertson. A win over Monroe and a near-miss against Forest Hills has given the rest of the league plenty of reason to take notice of the Panthers.

With 13 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game, Union Academy center Kyle Buffkin has helped the Cardinals to their best season ever at 9-9 overall and 5-7 in league play. And along with guards LeBryan Chambers and Josh Gibson, the Cardinals will look to further cement their place in the county during the conference tournament.

Central Academy of Technology & Arts (7-13, 3-9) needs to use next week to bounce back from a six-game stretch in which it lost five contests, especially as the Cougars face the challenge of winning the tournament in order to qualify for the Class 1A playoffs.

Private schools

In private-school action, Metrolina Christian’s 9-3 mark in the Metrolina Athletic Conference earned the Warriors the No. 2 seed in the league tournament, slated to begin Tuesday, Feb. 14. at Charlotte’s Northside Christian Academy.

The Warriors, led by first-year coach Michael Wilson, are riding a hot streak, as they’ve won four of their last five games.

In the Charlotte Area Christian Athletic Association, the Central Academy at Lake Park Eagles recently concluded a stellar regular season at 19-1, led by William Pleasants, Carlos Heath and Michael Pleasants.

The Eagles were slated to begin the CACAA tournament on Feb. 7, with the championship game scheduled for Friday, Feb. 10. Monroe’s Tabernacle Christian (0-7) and Indian Trail’s Shining Light Baptist Academy (11-7) will each vie for the N.C. Christian School Association 2A Western Regional title, beginning Thursday, Feb. 16, before advancing to the Class 2A state tournament on Feb. 23.

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