CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When Will Tibbs’ long 3-point attempt caromed off the right side of the rim with less than five seconds remaining, it appeared Winston-Salem Prep’s run of championships was coming to an end as thousands of East Carteret fans roared.
The noise quickly tailed off as Kwa’tre Hollingsworth came up with the rebound and banked in a layup with 1.1 seconds remaining to lift Prep to its third straight title with a 72-71 win on Saturday afternoon in the boys NCHSAA Class 1-A championship game at the Smith Center.
Still, Prep (26-4) couldn’t exhale until it got through one more possession, as East Carteret (31-1) threw a long pass that ended up in the hands of Jacque Brown, whose 3-point attempt from near mid-court rimmed out at the buzzer, setting off a celebration in front of the Prep bench as East players dropped to the floor.
“It had a chance,” Coach Billy Anderson of East said. “People get disappointed about the last play, people say if this … if we would have taken the ball a little better, if we would have hit more free throws, if we would have hit more free throws. The bottom line is a good athlete got a good shot late in the game and I thought it was going in.”
Coach Andre Gould of Prep was emotional after the game.
“What else can I say about these guys — I couldn’t be more proud of a group of kids,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “It’s exhausting when everybody’s is giving you their best shot year-in, year-out. The season is so long — we fight, we play so hard.”
Prep’s Mike Hughes, who was named MVP, finished with 17 points, six rebounds and five assists in 25 minutes before fouling out with four minutes remaining. Hughes, went to the bench early in the fourth quarter, fouled out on a charge on the first play after he returned.
If there was any concern on the Prep bench, Gould didn’t see it.
“When Mike fouled out, those guys said, ‘There was no way we’re going to lose this ballgame, we’re going to figure it out,’” Gould said. “And they did just that.”
With Hughes on the bench, Coye Simmons told Gould he was ready to carry the load.
“He said, ‘I want the ball in my hands,’” Gould said.
He got his opportunity quickly, scoring four points as Prep put together a quick 7-0 run to take a 65-60 lead with 2:19 remaining.
But just as they had done all night, East answered with a Trevor Willis 3-pointer. After Aaron Lipscomb missed a free throw, East found Sam Johnson for a 3-pointer to put the Mariners ahead 66-65 with 1:32 left.
After two Simmons free throws and an Omar Roseboro layup put Prep ahead 69-66, two free throws drew East to 69-68 with 51 seconds remaining — and East had one more 3-pointer left.
After Hollingsworth made one of two free throws with 28 seconds to go, East threw a long outlet to Johnson for a 3-pointer in front of the East bench to put the Mariners ahead 71-70 with 20 seconds left.
East finished 14 of 29 from 3-point range.
“They looked like they were hitting shots from the state of New York,” Gould said. “One time I looked up, and they were in Canada. I’ve never seen a team quite shoot the ball like that group of kids just did.”
Willis, who went 6 of 11 from 3-point range, finished with 24 points; Johnson hit five 3-pointers on his way to 20 points.
As advertised, the teams wasted little time getting off to the races, as Roseboro scored on a layup nine seconds after the opening tip.
The first half was an up-and-down affair, East jumping out to an early lead behind Trevor Willis’ hot shooting. Willis, a 44 percent 3-point shooter for the season, found holes in Prep’s zone to knock down three 3s in the first quarter. East went 5 of 10 on 3-point attempts in the first quarter.
After switching to a man defense, Prep rallied to 22-21 on Hughes’ layup as time expired in the first quarter.
The game turned in the second quarter, as Prep relied primarily on man defense to run East off the 3-point line. As East cooled from 3-point range, Prep hit all three of its attempts in the quarter.
The pace slowed considerably as the teams were whistled for a combined 19 fouls, shooting 26 free throws.
“Sometimes you’ve got to grind it out … we can play either way,” Gould said.
Leading up to the game, Hughes and his teammates said that despite their previous success, Prep still had something to prove in winning another title.
Seated beside the Prep seniors after the game, Hughes said that there was nothing more to accomplish.
“I guess you could say that,” Hughes said.
As Gould reflected on the run, he talked about Prep’s seven seniors having targets on their backs because of their success.
“It’s a lot of pressure … when you’re the favorite,” he said. “Eventually, sometime, this is going to end.
“But you didn’t want it to end it on these seven.”