by Lee Noles
For much of the season, the Forest Hills High boys’ basketball team hung its hat on its 3-point shooting prowess. But when the Yellow Jackets found themselves in a tightly contested regional final against Salisbury, and the 3-point shot not falling, they took a different approach.
Forest Hills switched its offense by scoring 40 points inside the paint to rally past the Hornets for a 71-67 win in the 2A West Regional on March 3 in Greensboro. The Jackets reached the state title game for the first time since 1964, when Forest Hills lost to Hildebran, 70-65.
Forest Hills is ranked No. 3 in the latest state 2A poll, according to maxpreps.com, and faces Greene Central in the state championship March 10 in Chapel Hill at 2:30 p.m. Greene Central entered the playoffs as the No. 9 seed but won three games as the lower seed, including a 61-57 win over Clinton in the East Region final. Clinton was the state’s No. 1 ranked team and had won 23 straight.
“It’s just a credit to the kids,” said Forest Hills coach Matt Sides of reaching the state championship. “They took us on an incredible journey so far this year, and it’s been a lot of fun. We have one more to go and we are facing a real good opponent in Greene Central.”
Nas Tyson, a junior, led the Jackets (29-2) with a game-high 21 points on 53 percent shooting to go along with four steals. Tyson was one of four Jackets to reach double-figures. Jaleel McLaughlin added 20 points, while Trey Belin scored 14. Jamylan Blakeney contributed 11 points.
McLaughlin added seven assists and matched Blakeney with a game-high eight rebounds. All four, along with Jai Rorie, have started much of the season for the Jackets. The heavy minutes continued against the Hornets with each of the starting five playing more than half of the game. Belin, McLaughlin and Tyson only came out for nine of the possible 40 minutes in the championship.
The extended playing time by the starters resulted in the Hornets’ bench outscoring Forest Hills’ subs by a 38-0 margin.
“In an ideal situation I would like to get them one or two extra minutes of rest, but with flow of the game it felt like we needed them in there,” said Sides of keeping in his starters. “It seemed whenever we made a run, Salisbury was right there.”
The Hornets (27-4) took a 52-50 lead at the end of the third quarter before Forest Hills scored 22 points in the fourth to claim the program’s first regional title after coming up short the previous two years.
Forest Hills’ offense has mostly based its success this season upon the 3-point shot. The Jackets came into the game against Salisbury having made more than 40 percent of its 3-point attempts. The hot shooting didn’t materialize against the Hornets as Forest Hills made just 22 percent of its 3-pointers.
But the Jackets were still successful at exploiting the Hornets’ defense by taking the ball inside. Sides said Salisbury used full-court pressure while denying passing lanes and running out on Forest Hills’ shooters. The defensive move left the lanes open for Tyson and McLauglin to go inside for either short pull up jumpers, or lay ins.
“I think our kids did a good job of adjusting and taking what given to them.” Sides said.
Despite entering the tournament as a nine seed, Sides said it doesn’t show the talent level that Greene Central possesses. The Rams went 11-1 in the Eastern Carolina Conference, and averaged over 78 points per game.
“They are really, really, really good.” Sides said. “They are a tremendous team and they have a lot of balance.”
If Forest Hills wins the state championship, the Jackets would become the first school in Union County to win a state title in football, baseball and boys basketball. The football program got its championship in 1984. The baseball team’s title came in 1997.
Monroe is the only boys program in the county to have won state titles with the Redhawks grabbing theirs 30 years apart in 1980 and 2010. The Redhawks have also played in two more state championship games, which came in 1990 and 1993.