MORGANTON – Add another to the long list of McDowell – Freedom basketball games filed under “Instant Classics.”
The Titans rallied from an eight-point, second-half deficit to edge the Patriots 84-78 in the semifinals of the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference tournament Thursday.
The game, which came just six days after Freedom’s (22-3) remarkable 106-93 win over the Titans on the same floor in the regular-season finale, saw eight ties and a whopping 24 lead changes before things were settled.
McDowell (21-5), the tourney’s third seed, advanced to Friday’s finals against top seed and regular-season champion Hickory.
Even though the game had no bearing on either team’s State Playoff situations, it was still a huge win for the Titans, who hadn’t beaten Freedom in Morganton since Dec. 30, 2009.
But the Titans needed big performances from their standout players and a change in defensive strategy in order to survive against the state’s 10th-ranked 3A team.
Senior guard Kevin Silver (3 steals, 6-of-9 3-pointers) poured in a game-high 26 points, including a dagger of a 3-pointer that put the Titans up 81-77 with 30 seconds to go.
Post Travis Corpening (7 rebounds) fought off foul trouble to finish with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Antoine Lindsey (7 rebounds, 6 assists) added 16 points, and Skyler McKinney had another of his typical outings: 14 points, 13 rebounds, six assists.
And fifth starter Caden Davis (6 points) hit a clutch jumper from the baseline that gave the Titans the lead for good with 57 seconds to play.
But those numbers still might not have been enough if Titans head coach Brian Franklin had opted to play the Pats man-to-man, which McDowell had done in the two previous games.
“The first two times we played, we played all man,” said Franklin. “We played some 1-3-1 on baseline out-of-bounds, but other than that, it was all man-to-man because we just didn’t want to leave shooters. They shoot it so well. The last game we played, they score 106 points and make 14 3s, and you look at it and think, they still scored 64 points and the vast majority of them were 5 or 6 feet and in. So what we were thinking is they’re going to make 3s. What we need to do is try to limit those points they get inside. I think for a big part of the game, we did a good job with that.”
Early on, Freedom took advantage of gaps in the 3-2 zone to knock down some perimeter shots. Guards Fletcher Abee (23 points) and Michael Logan (12) hit three triples apiece in the opening quarter, helping stake Freedom to a 23-20 lead after one, with 14 of those 20 coming from Abee.
But the Titans came right back with a 20-15 second quarter and led 40-38 at the break.
With Corpening and McKinney both in foul trouble, Freedom’s post players asserted themselves in the third period. Aidan Pearson (12 points, 8 rebounds) and Tobias Kanipe (12 points, 7 rebounds) crashed the offensive glass and helped the Pats take their largest lead at 60-52 with three minutes remaining in the quarter.
But McDowell was just getting started.
The Titans closed the quarter with a 9-0 run, getting buckets from Davis and Lindsey as well as a 3 and a runner in the lane from Silver. The rally gave McDowell a 61-60 lead headed into the fourth quarter.
The Titans led by as many as five at 74-69 on McKinney’s driving layup at the 3:20 mark, but Freedom eventually surged back in front 77-76 on a follow shot by Kanipe with 1:50 to go.
After the two clubs traded scoreless possessions, Corpening passed out of traffic in the paint to an open Davis on the right wing. The senior calmly swished a 14-footer to give the Titans a 78-77 lead, and they never trailed again.
Kanipe misfired on the other end and McKinney snagged the rebound. Seconds later, he dished to Silver on the right wing, and the fearless senior buried a trey for an 81-77 lead with 30 seconds left.
“Kevin made huge shots,” said Franklin. “The big one he took towards the end of the game is an iffy one when you’ve got the lead. But if a guy takes it, he’d better make it, and throughout his career, he’s been the guy that takes those big shots, and he’s made almost all of them. That’s a shot where if you do make it, it just about seals the deal.”
That was indeed the case.
Pearson made one of two free throws on the other end to make it a one-possession game with 16.9 to play. But the Titans beat Freedom’s full-court pressure, and reserve guard J.C. Olivo fired a long pass up-court to McKinney, who finished the play with a layup and drew a foul. His free throw with eight seconds left made it 84-78.
“I thought every kid that played, played as hard as they could play,” said Franklin. “I think they got on the bus today believing they were going to win. There were a couple of times there where Freedom made shots and kind of stretched it out, and you felt like we were right on the verge of losing control of the game, and our kids just kept fighting the battle.”
The Titans shot 53 percent from the field (30-of-57), nearly equaling the 54 percent they shot in last week’s high-scoring loss to Freedom. McDowell went 8-of-19 from long range. The Patriots cooled off after the hot first quarter and shot 10-of-35 from downtown.
Guard Jakari Dula, who came into the game averaging 28 points against the Titans in his career, scored just 11 Thursday, going 4-of-17 from the field and 1-of-8 from deep.
McDowell held a 34-30 rebounding edge, but the Pats owned the offensive glass 15-11.
In the end, it came down to the Titans’ ability to get to the basket and either finish or kick the ball out for open perimeter shots.
“On offense, we wanted to spread it out some and use our quickness against their size and drive the ball to the basket, and Antoine did a good job with that,” said Franklin. “Skyler doesn’t get enough recognition because we get so used to what he does. There are a lot of guys who, if they had the game Skyler had, we’d be talking about what an amazing game they had. Skyler does it, and you just kind of take it for granted.
“Travis has really stepped up the last month of the season and played huge for us. J.C. and Adam (Randolph) and Dylan (McRary) came in and gave us energy and some really valuable minutes. (Davis) is a huge part of our team, even though he doesn’t score a lot of points, he has made some big shots here lately, and none were any bigger than the one he made on the baseline.”
McDowell (84) Skyler McKinney 5-10 3-4 14, Caden Davis 3-4 0-0 6, Travis Corpening 8-12 3-4 19, Antoine Lindsey 4-11 7-8 16, Kevin Silver 9-14 2-2 26, Dylan McRary 1-2 0-0 2, J.C. Olivo 0-3 0-0 0, Adam Randolph 0-1 1-2 1. Totals: 30-57 16-20 84.
Freedom (78) Jakari Dula 4-17 2-2 11, Michael Logan 4-12 0-0 12, Fletcher Abee 8-17 3-3 23, Tobias Kanipe 5-7 2-4 12, Aidan Pearson 4-8 4-6 12, Jayden Birchfield 2-5 1-2 5, Nick Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Ben Tolbert 1-3 0-0 3. Totals: 28-69 12-17 78.
McDowell 20 20 21 23 – 84
Freedom 23 15 22 18 – 78
Rebounds: McDowell (34) Freedom (30) Rebound leaders: McDowell (McKinney 13) Freedom (Pearson 8) 3-point goals: McDowell (8-19) Freedom (10-35) McDowell (Silver 6-9, Lindsey 1-6, McKinney 1-4) Freedom (Dula 1-8, Logan 4-9, Abee 4-13, Kanipe, Birchfield 0-1, Tolbert 1-3) McDowell assist leaders: (Lindsey, McKinney 6) McDowell steals leaders: (Silver 3, Davis 2) Turnovers: McDowell (14) Freedom (9) Fouled out: Freedom (Logan 2:02—fourth)