by Aaron Garcia
In the end, it didn’t matter that the Shining Light Baptist Academy boys basketball team entered the N.C. Christian Schools Association 2A playoffs with a sizeable target on its back after winning the past two 1A titles. All that mattered was that Shining Light got an important defensive stop while leading by two points in the waning seconds of the championship game and sunk its subsequent free throws to clinch the program’s third consecutive state crown with a 61-57 win over host Fellowship Baptist Academy of Durham.
Coach Jason Martin recalled saying a quick prayer as the buzzer sounded.
“My first thought was, ‘Thank you Lord for blessing our hard work and hard effort,’” Martin said. “Then I took a deep breath and was very excited for our boys and how they persevered through the year.
“The things they learned and all our hard work really came out in the last few games.”
Sophomore guard Andrew Cruse led the way with 37 points. Senior Jared Cruse, Andrew’s brother, notched 12 points, while senior Trenton Raymond added eight.
Andrew Cruse averaged 28 points in the three-day tournament and 20 points and four rebounds on the season. Jared Cruse led the team with 21 points per game and 12 boards, while Raymond averaged 11 points, five rebounds and two steals.
The Royal Crusaders started their playoff run with a 49-42 win over Winston Salem’s Woodland Baptist Christian School on Feb. 17. The following day, Shining Light downed Fayetteville Trinity Christian, 67-57 to advance to the title game.
The championship improved the Royal Crusaders’ record to 25-5 in their first year of 2A action, and although they faced better teams in their new classification, Martin said his players often took on 2A and 3A programs in the past, which helped the team’s transition.
“We were ready for it,” said Martin of the jump to 2A. “We just kept playing what we play and kept doing what we do. We preached playing a full 32 minutes of consistent basketball; that’s what it takes to win at that level. You can’t have mental breakdowns.
“We knew we were capable of doing it,” added Martin, “but we knew it would take a consistent effort throughout the year.”
The Royal Crusaders’ roster also included Lee Kelley, Jonathan Williams, Matthew Wilkerson, Michael Kelley, Mason O’Neill, Joshua Cruse, Andrew Wilkerson, Corey O’Neill, Joshua Shearin, Stephen Wilkerson, Daniel Ganchenko and Nick Raymond.
“I was very proud of our boys,” Martin said. “I was thankful that I got to work with them. It was a relief, like, ‘Wow, we accomplished a great task, a great feat by moving up to the 2A division and facing the competition level we’ve faced. The kind of success we had was very rewarding and we’re obviously very excited about it.
“Now we’re just looking forward to what our team’s going to be able to do (in the future).”