MORGANTON - Going into the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference tournament, the McDowell Titans knew to win a championship they were ultimately facing the daunting task of having to run the gauntlet against two high school teams, Freedom and Hickory, very capable of representing the league once March rolls around.
The Titans' journey through that gauntlet fell a matter of seconds short of completion as the top-seed Hickory Red Tornados capitalized on a last-second defensive stand and a fast-break basket from guard Richard Ables with less than a second left that gave the Red Tornados a 69-67 win in an intense battle worthy of a championship game.
Friday night’s rubber match between the two foes was non-stop action from beginning to end with both squads combining for nine ties and 16 lead changes. The fourth quarter alone provided half of those lead changes as neither team had an advantage higher than four points from the 2:30 mark of the second quarter until the final horn sounded.
Roughly 24 hours after the Titans survived a thrilling and exhausting 84-78 win over No. 2 seed and tournament host Freedom in the semifinals, the big question everyone pondered was exactly just how much gas did McDowell have left in the tank. That question was answered fairly quick by how the game evolved.
“We may not have won tonight’s game but our kids wanted it just as much if not more than Hickory did. And for the second night in a row they left it all out on the court,” said McDowell head coach Brian Franklin.
Hickory (24-2) began the night attacking McDowell (21-6) and its zone by moving the ball around offensively and getting ahead 9-2 in the first two minutes of play. Torrey James, who led the Tornados with 20 points and was named Tournament Most Valuable Player, scored 15 seconds in on a drive down the left side of the paint. Sophomore guard Cody Young then made it 5-0 on a 3 about 30 seconds later. Jackson Bell and James Freeman also added scores in between a made Titan basket to get the early advantage.
The Tornadoes had a margin at nine as far out as the 3:22 mark in the second and were keeping McDowell at arm's length.
However, the Titans responded in a big way late in the first half, going on a 12-0 run that lasted three-plus minutes and much like the game prior, surged into the locker room with the lead at 32-29 and setting the tone for the rest of the night.
Kevin Silver drained a deep 3-pointer from the wing with 3:12 left in the half. Antoine Lindsey followed up with a drive and score at the 2:31 mark getting back to within four points. Then, after a made free throw by Caden Davis on the back end of a two-shot foul, McDowell finished the last minute of the half with two deep 3-pointers from Silver, the latter coming just before the horn sounded off a drive and assist from Skyler McKinney.
“I can’t say any more about these kids and how they fought and gave themselves a chance overcoming the deficits early and making plays," said Franklin. "After the first quarter I thought the defense did a better job at preventing Hickory from getting the ball in the middle of the zone, plus we did a better job rebounding.”
The second half featured what looked like a true heavyweight bout as both teams traded punches offensively. Bell and James accounted for five Hickory points in the first minute of the half to give them the lead again at 34-32. Lindsey on the next McDowell possession countered with a long pull-up 3-pointer from the left wing, putting the Titans in front again 35-34.
The back-and-forth battle continued from there all the way down the stretch as neither team could separate from the other. Both teams eventually dealt with mounting foul trouble as Freeman, James and Young all reached at least four fouls with Freeman getting his fifth late.
In the decisive fourth quarter, the Tornadoes had a three-point advantage on two occasions including 65-62 after Bell made a pair of free throws with 1:18 left. Then, on McDowell’s next possession, Lindsey, with 1:05 to go, made three big foul shots after forcing James into contact on a contested trey.
After forcing a stop on the defensive end, Lindsey was again fouled with 23 seconds left on the McDowell end of the floor. The senior put McDowell in front 67-65 after two more from the charity stripe. After a Hickory timeout, they quickly went to Bell down on the block and he drew Travis Corpening’s fifth foul on a drive in the paint disqualifying him from the game. Bell tied it up for the last time with two free throws with 16 seconds left leading to the dramatic finish.
McDowell, faced with full-court pressure from Hickory after the free throws, made a couple passes in-bounds, up the court and got the ball in Lindsey’s hands with just under 10 seconds left with a chance to win. From there, Young pressured, came up and swiped at the ball, creating enough contact to strip the ball. Young recovered it just in front of midcourt and pushed it forward to Ables, who leaked out for a game-winning layup with less than a second left, ending the Titans' run toward the championship in heartbreaking fashion.
“We shot the ball pretty good in the second half especially, Kevin and Antoine both made some big shots in the second half," said Franklin. "Some of those didn’t fall as much in the first half but they were good looks so we wanted them to keep shooting them. When it came down to the last minute we had a great chance to win the game with just one stop. And then we still had a possession tied with about 15 seconds left but we turned it over and they got a score at the end. I’m disappointed that we lost the game only because I wanted these kids to win. They have poured their hearts out this entire week and played three tough games and have represented our school so well. And we appreciate the fans' support this week, I know by their reaction they appreciate the effort given out by our kids as well.”
Lindsey (5 assists, 5 rebounds) finished with 22 points, including four second-half 3s. McKinney continued to produce impressive totals almost nightly, adding 18 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and a block. McKinney early in the game produced the first 13 points scored by McDowell. Silver (4 rebounds, 2 assists) had 13 points as the third Titan in double figures.
Corpening (11 rebounds) finished with nine points. J.C. Olivo had three points and Davis, along with Adam Randolph, scored one point each.
Silver, McKinney, Hickory’s Young and Jaquan Thurman along with Freedom guard Fletcher Abee and West Caldwell guard Tre Hall were named to the All-Tournament team.
Attention now shifts for McDowell to the upcoming 4A State tournament which begins on Tuesday. The Titans, with a 21-6 record, are looking at a likely first-round bye and then a second-round home game that would be played on Thursday. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association will release the playoff pairings this weekend.
NOTE: The Freedom Lady Patriots claimed the 2018 Northwestern Conference girls tournament championship with a 60-55 win against top-seed Watauga. Freedom (22-4), down as much as 20-11 in the first half, tied the score at 26 at halftime and then edged past the Lady Pioneers 34-29 after the break. Madison Bailey scored 17 points for the Lady Patriots and was named Most Valuable Player. The All-Tournament team consisted of Freedom starters Adair Garrison and Blaikley Crooks, Watauga’s Maddie Darner and Rebecca Farthing, Hickory forward Makayla Hill and McDowell guard Dezi Williams.