Cuthbertson needs a single victory to earn first state hoops title
GREENSBORO – In most instances, it’s better to be fashionably late, but the Cuthbertson boys basketball team has decided to crash the party a year early.
Last year, the Cavs made a substantial jump when they finished the season with a 22-8 record and advanced to the Class 2A state sectional finals as a second-year program. But after graduating three starters from that team, Cuthbertson coach Mike Helms admitted that he’s been surprised with how well his team has done with so many new faces in the starting lineup.
“If you told me (before this season that) there would be a state championship (game) in our future, I would’ve said, ‘In two years’ because a lot of kids were playing new roles,” Helms said. “I thought we’d get better as the year went on, but there would have to be some adjustment process in their roles.”
On March 3 at the Greensboro Special Events Center, the Cavs downed Shelby in the Western Regional finals, 57-50, to advance to the state title game. Cuthbertson will face Kinston on March 9 at N.C. State University’s Reynolds Coliseum.
Sophomore guard Shelton Mitchell led the Cavs in the regional final with 19 points, while fellow guard Emmitt Afam had 15. The win improved the Cavs’ overall record to 31-1.
“It feels pretty good,” said Afam after the win. “It’s humbling and everything. We came into the game just thinking we had to execute, and if we did, we’d pull it out.”
Helms said that when he took the job two years ago after leading the Porter Ridge program, he had a feeling the Cavs could be competitive quickly, judging from the talent on the roster and the players’ willingness to work, especially on the defensive end.
“Then, the next year, when Shelton (Mitchell) showed up, that just kind of put us over the top,” Helms said.
The Cavs started this season like gangbusters, winning their first 12 games and claiming the CMC-Union Holiday Classic tournament title before dropping their first and only game of the season, an 87-69 loss to Metrolina Christian on Jan. 5. Since then, the Cavs have won 19 consecutive games, which included the Rocky River 1A/2A conference’s regular-season and tournament titles.
And though it was only one loss, Mitchell said the memories from their defeat to Metrolina Christian have driven the Cavs.
“We remember that,” Mitchell said. “We keep that in the back of our heads. When you have coaches like (Helms), where if we’re slipping up or something, all he has to say is ‘Metrolina,” and it’s humbling.”
Now it’s on to the program’s first-ever state title appearance, where they will face traditional power Kinston (26-4). Much like Cuthbertson, the Vikings put a premium on stingy defensive play but have a distinct size advantage over the Cavs with several players standing 6 foot 4 or taller.
But then again, so did Shelby. And although the Golden Bulls held Cuthbertson to its lowest point total since Dec. 19, the Cavs proved that, although their roster tops out with three players at 6-3 (Mitchell and fellow starters Isiah Cureton and Lucius Mcmillon), they had no problem winning an ugly, hard-fought game.
“We knew (Shelby) was going to come in and they’d be physical, but we didn’t back down,” said Mitchell. “We don’t back down from anybody. We weren’t scared or anything like that. Basically, we knew we had to box out and get bodies on people. We were ready for it, and I think we handled (the physicality) well.”
Afam added that the players have also learned to ignore the conventional wisdom that a third-year program can’t possibly advance to the state title game, much less win a championship.
“We’ve heard that a lot, but we’ve just got to ignore it,” he said. “We’ve just got to play our game and do what we do.”
Which is the same approach Helms said he’ll adopt this week as his team prepares for the biggest game in program history.
“We’re just going to talk about it being a basketball game,” said Helms, who will be making his first state title game appearance as a coach.
“If you start thinking about, ‘We’re playing in the state championship game,’ that’s going to get you (in trouble) in itself. You’ve got to just keep thinking, ‘We’re just playing basketball.’ It’s another basketball game and we’ve got to do what we do and try to be as tough as we were (last week against Shelby).”