Cuthbertson boys take different path to their second consecutive state title game

On Saturday, March 16, the Cuthbertson boys basketball team will play in its second consecutive Class 2A state championship game, which is scheduled to tip off at 2:30 p.m. at the University of North Carolina’s Dean E. Smith Center.

The Cuthbertson boys basketball team is just one win away from its first state title.

The Cavs will face Kinston (27-2), which was their opponent in last season’s state title game, which they lost, 58-55, at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum. In keeping with the familiar pattern, the Cavs advanced to the championship game after notching a seven-point win over Shelby in the Western Regional final for the second consecutive year.

On the surface, the similarities between Cuthbertson’s last two seasons are uncanny.

The Cavs even feature the same starting cast as last year’s lineup in guards Shelton Mitchell and Emmitt Afam, and forwards Jorden Hardrick, Lucius McMillon and Isiah Cureton.

But for Cuthbertson coach Mike Helms, this year’s run to the title game couldn’t have been more different.

Last year, the Cavs’ only pre-title-game hiccup came in an early January loss to Metrolina Christian. Other than that, Helms’ club largely sailed through the Rocky River 1A/2A conference schedule untested and uninjured. They ran away with the league’s regular-season and tournament crowns en route to a 19-game winning streak and 31-1 record entering the N.C. High School Athletic Association title game. But even with the loss in the state finals, there were plenty of reasons for the Cavs to be optimistic, especially when many of the players gathered the next day to play together on a neighborhood court, proving the desire to return to the title game didn’t take even a day off.

“We left Raleigh last year going, ‘OK, we’ve got everybody coming back except for one kid (then-senior Joey Skavroneck),’” said Helms. “But it didn’t really turn out that way.”

For starters, backup forward Julius  Stradford transferred to Monroe before the school year. This fall, reserve guard Kirby Crutchfield suffered a season-ending knee injury while playing on the football team. The injury bug continued to bite as Cureton suffered a hand injury and Mitchell, a Wake Forest commit, was forced to miss eight games with a knee ailment. And the most recent hit came in this month’s conference tournament semifinals, when shooter Zach Chitwood, who had filled much of the void from the loss of Crutchfield, went down for the season with a knee injury.

“Last year was just kind of a magical year; everything just kind of fell into place,” said Helms. “We didn’t have any injuries last year. It was kind of surreal how it all fell into place. This year, it’s been a little different because we’ve had more injuries and a little more adversity in that way. It’s been a harder road to get back.”

A glance at the numbers tends to contradict this notion, however. Last season, Cuthbertson outscored its opponents by an average of 21.8 points per game, a margin that ballooned this
season to 24.5. But that just shows that the Cavs beat the lesser teams on its slate by a wider margin. In reality, the Cavs, despite their 29-3 record, were pushed this season – quite often.

They fell to Virginia’s nationally acclaimed Hampton High by two points during the winter break and battled past this week’s opponent, Kinston, for a three-point win in the same tournament. Kinston hasn’t lost since then.

The Cavs also narrowly escaped from Marvin Ridge and Monroe with two-point wins during the regular season, only to fall to the latter team in the Rocky River conference tournament championship game by four points.

And to Helms, that’s not such a bad thing, especially entering a state championship game.

“Nothing’s been easy, but we didn’t expect it to be easy in our conference,” said Helms. “And, thankfully, I think it’s been to our benefit. Our conference has been a year better (this season).

“Obviously, we were pushed a whole lot more in the conference than we were a year ago. I think in the long run, that’s good for us to really be battle-tested and pushed. We said at the beginning of the year, ‘There’s very little chance we’re going to match last year’s record, but hopefully by the time we get to the end of the year, we’ll be a better team than we were last year at this time.’ I think right now, we are a year better, too.”

Especially on defense, which has been a point of emphasis for Helms this season. He said Cornelius Stradford and newcomer Justin Austin have both joined the starting five in making things difficult for opponents. Last week, the Cavs harassed Shelby into 13 turnovers, which was an especially important point since they shot 7-for-24 (and 1-for-9 on 3-pointers) in the first half of that game.

“(Austin and Stradford) can both really guard, so I think we’re a little deeper defensively,” said Helms. “I feel good about where we are compared to a year ago that way.”

McMillon said the rash of hardships, coupled with the stiffer competition this season, helped hold the remaining players accountable, especially when Mitchell was on the shelf.

“Last year we kind of depended on           Shelton to take us through everything,” McMillon said. “This year, we kind of realized we can’t rely on him for everything. We’ve got to step up our games, because if we didn’t, everyone else would be getting better while we’d be relying on one person.”

Added Mitchell: “We all just stayed strong, stayed together as a team. Hopefully, it works out.”

Much of that credit goes to the team’s upperclassmen.

“That’s the good thing about having so many seniors,” Helms said. “They handle things well. They’ve seen it all now, and they’re veterans, especially the guys who have been on varsity all four years. They’ve seen a little bit of everything. They’ve been through the tough times that first year (when the school opened in 2009), so to get that leadership from those guys has been big.”

But while all the differences between the past two seasons seem to be paying dividends, the similarities have been beneficial as well. After all, there’s no replacing the experience that comes from playing in a state championship game, even in a loss, explained Afam. Not only will it help as they try to wrestle Kinston’s title away, it played a big role in getting the Cavs through their relatively tumultuous season.

“It helped a lot because we didn’t fold in those pressure situations,” said Afam, who was named the 2A Western Regional Most Valuable Player after leading Cuthbertson with 17 points in last week’s win over Shelby.

“We’ve been here before, and this is where we expected to be. Experience definitely helped from getting here last year. We just knew what it took to get to (the regional finals) and (the
state championship) game, injuries or not.”

Now, Helms hopes the experience from last year will take some of the glaring shine off playing in such a big game. The routine of driving to the Triangle area the day before the game will seem more routine, as will playing in such a big venue for the state’s ultimate prize.

“We didn’t know what to expect (last year),” said Helms. “Really, the whole week (leading up to the state finals) was a blur. This year, the kids kind of know what to expect when they get there, the routine will be there more. I think the week will slow down for them, and they’ll take time to just step back and enjoy what they’re taking part in this week.

“I do think having that experience last year will benefit us. We won’t go in there wide-eyed and so excited that we’re there. It’ll be more, ‘OK, we’re going to play a basketball game.’ It just happens to be a really big one.”

Which Helms and his players hope leads to the biggest difference between the past two seasons: a state championship.

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