MARSHVILLE – For coach Matt Sides and the Forest Hills basketball team, this season has turned into everything they could have hoped after winning a 2A title last year.
Now, they want to send the seniors that have sent so much to the program off in style.
Seniors Nas Tyson, Jai Rorie, Trey Belin and Keeshawn Tyson have played varsity since Day 1 and have compiled 114-12 record together, so it’s easy to see why they say they want this ride to continue as long as possible.
“We talked about having the right to stay together as long as we could,” Sides said following his team’s 71-62 win over East Lincoln that sends the defending champs to the finals to defend their crown. “It wasn’t about winning a championship, we wanted another week together. These guys really love each other and want to be around each other.”
East Lincoln coach Jon Hancock said his staff began talking about this game last spring because East Lincoln and Forest Hills were clearly the two best 2A teams in the West in his estimation.
But with a sold-out Catawba Valley Community College crowd on hand to watch, the game lived up to every bit of the hype.
There were nine lead changes, and both teams seemingly had control on numerous occasions.
After Forest Hills struck first and led 19-12, East Lincoln began chipping away. By halftime, they trailed by just three points, but a 7-0 spurt to open the third quarter seemed to have momentum on the side of the Mustangs.
“We hit them first early and then they made a big run in the second quarter,” Sides said. “It was two heavyweights trading knockout blows and that’s a credit to them.”
After Forest Hills regained the lead, East Lincoln closed the third quarter on a 5-0 run that gave them a three-point advantage.
It was a position Sides and his team had been in before.
In the same Final Four matchup last season, the Yellow Jackets had led Salisbury for much of the game until a big third-quarter spurt left Forest Hills down three just like they were against East Lincoln.
“I told them, ‘We’ve been here before,’ but that says a lot about the toughness and character of our kids,” Sides said. “They came out in the fourth quarter, when we could have caved into the momentum, but I felt like we hit first and that was a big punch we delivered.
“Momentum went back and forth a good 10 or 15 times, but it was one of those things where we made our push at the right time to start the quarter, and we had another little one with three minutes to go to close the game.”
Despite 34 points and nine rebounds from East Lincoln star Justin Kuthan, the Yellow Jackets were able to run out to a 29-17 spurt in the decisive fourth quarter.
Nas Tyson scored 17, Belin and Jai Rorie scored 15 each and Jamylan Blakeney added 13 points and 12 rebounds to lead the charge.
Belin said he and Tyson started playing together at Wingate Elementary when they were 5 or 6 years old.
Now, with just one game left in their careers, the two want to finish what they started.
“These guys, all year long, haven’t had any quit in them,” Sides said. “They haven’t had any in their career, and they’re happy to get to have one more chance to compete.”
As the Yellow Jackets left the court, they stopped for a moment to celebrate with their student section and many of the Forest Hills faithful who had packed the gym to watch them play as they have all season.
Sides said his players feel their support, which makes getting back to the title game even more rewarding.
“It’s more than basketball. That’s what makes this special,” Sides said. “This community has been our heartbeat. It’s a sense of pride these kids have playing for their hometown. I think a lot of times people bounce around from school to school, but our kids have grown up in this community and have a sense of pride playing for more than themselves. You can’t put a value on that.”