The murmurings among the Hickory contingent at Friday’s Northwestern 3A/4A Conference opener against the McDowell Titans began shortly after the Titans took the floor for warmups.
“They’re small,” remarked one fan.
It’s true the Titans are nowhere near as big as the wildly long and athletic Red Tornados. Their hearts, however, are enormous.
The Titans (1-0 NWC, 5-1 overall) gutted out a 74-65 win over the previously unbeaten Tornados (0-1, 4-1) at Titan Gym in a memorable conference opener.
McDowell battled back from an eight-point, third-quarter deficit and ended up scoring 16 of the game’s final 20 points.
Wing Skyler McKinney had 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for the Titans, while post Travis Corpening was a beast in the paint, finishing with 20 points and 12 boards. Point guard Kevin Silver added 17 points, making 4-of-8 3-pointers.
“That was big for us in a lot of ways,” said Titans head coach Brian Franklin. “It was the first conference game, and playing a team like Hickory, who I think will not only be one of the best teams in our league, but a team that can make a deep run in the state playoffs.
“I thought our kids were outstanding. They had the mentality that they were going to fight and never give up, and they played as hard as they possibly could.”
For a while, it looked as if Hickory’s athleticism would be too much for the Titans. The Tornados methodically built a 41-35 halftime advantage and increased their lead to 48-40 midway through the third quarter.
But the Titans had other plans.
McDowell cut the deficit to 55-52 at the end of three, and Silver’s 3-pointer to start the fourth tied the game.
Hickory surged in front 61-58 by the six-minute mark, but it was all Titans after that.
McKinney buried a 3-pointer off a Silver assist to tie the game at 61-61 with 5:52 to play. McDowell got a stop, and Corpening made a pair of free throws on the other end for a 63-61 lead. The Titans never trailed again.
There was plenty of drama remaining, however.
McDowell held a slim, 66-63 edge with a minute to go. McKinney missed a shot at close range, but grabbed the rebound and fired the ball to a wide-open Silver in the corner. Silver drew a foul on a 3-point shot, and then calmly swished all three free throws to give the Titans a 69-63 lead with exactly a minute to play.
After Hickory’s Torrey James missed a 3-pointer, the Titans’ Antoine Lindsey made one of two free throws to make it a three-possession game with 37 seconds to play, and that was the ballgame.
McDowell outscored Hickory 22-10 in the fourth quarter.
“The way they finished the game in the fourth quarter was awesome,” said Franklin. “They never gave them (Hickory) a chance to get back in it; no turnovers, no offensive boards, no silly fouls.”
McDowell also went 11-of-15 from the stripe in the last 5:27.
The game got off to a bombastic start for the Tornados, who went 9-of-18 from downtown in the first half against the Titans’ zone. James made three 3-pointers in the first period, two more in the second, and finished the half with 17 points.
Despite their hot shooting, Hickory led by just two at 20-18 after one quarter and owned a relatively slim six-point edge at the break.
But in the second half, McDowell started pumping the ball inside to Corpening against Hickory’s man-to-man, and the senior took the ball straight to the cup, getting fouled or scoring a bucket nearly every time. Corpening finished 12-of-16 from the line.
Meanwhile, McKinney’s slashing drives to the basket kept Hickory honest.
That opened things up for the Titans’ shooters – Silver hit all four of his treys after intermission – and the tide began to turn.
“I thought Travis was outstanding,” said Franklin. “He played like a man tonight. He was aggressive and strong at the basket. I thought Skyler had his typical Skyler night. He played every minute of the game, never took a break. He was great defensively and got on the boards for us, and then he did some great things offensively, getting to the basket and scoring.”
Lindsey chipped in nine points for the Titans, but he didn’t press the issue, focused on setting up his teammates, and finished with five assists.
Dylan McRary came off the bench to score five for McDowell, including a key basket that put the Titans up 66-63 late. Caden Davis added three points and was a factor on defense with his physical play.
James led all scorers with 21 points. Jaquan Thurman tossed in 16 to go with eight rebounds, and delivered the high-flying Tornados’ only dunk. Cody Young, son of former Hickory great Al Young, scored all 12 of his points on four, first-half 3-pointers.
The game was nearly equal in every statistical category except one. Hickory shot 38 percent from the field, went 11-of-34 from 3-point range, and collected 33 rebounds, 10 of them on offense; McDowell shot 37 percent, went 10-of-25 from downtown, and had 36 boards, 10 of them offensive.
But the Titans got to the line 29 times compared to Hickory’s six, and outscored the Tornados 24-6 from the free throw line.
The game marked the first meeting between the two teams since 1993, and McDowell fans turned out in force.
“The crowd was great,” said Franklin. “You saw that when we were playing East Burke (in the opener), and I think people are excited about us playing the people we used to play. The atmosphere was great in here tonight.”
The Titans hosted Mitchell in non-conference play Saturday. McDowell is back to NWC play Tuesday on the road at St. Stephens.
Hickory (65) Cody Young 4-16 0-0 12, Torrey James 8-15 0-0 21, Jackson Bell 2-7 2-2 7, Jaquan Thurman 7-10 2-2 7, James Freeman 2-8 2-2 6, Richard Ables 0-3 0-0 0, Davis Amos 1-5 0-0 3. Totals: 24-64 6-6 65.
McDowell (74) Skyler McKinney 6-16 6-6 20, Caden Davis 1-2 0-0 3, Travis Corpening 4-9 12-16 20, Antoine Lindsey 3-12 1-2 9, Kevin Silver 4-10 5-5 17, Dylan McRary 2-5 0-0 5, Adam Randolph 0-0 0-0 0, J.C. Olivo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 20-54 24-29 74.
Hickory 20 21 14 10 – 65
McDowell 18 17 17 22 – 74
Rebounds: Hickory (33) McDowell (34) Rebound leaders: Hickory (Thurman 8) McDowell (McKinney, Corpening 10) 3-point goals: Hickory (11-34) McDowell (10-25) Hickory (Young 4-13, James 5-9, Bell 1-3, Freeman 0-4, Amos 1-5) McDowell (Silver 4-8, Lindsey 2-7, McKinney 2-6, Davis, McRary 1-2) McDowell assist leaders: (Lindsey, McKinney 5) McDowell steals leaders: (Lindsey, McKinney 1) McDowell blocked shot leaders: (McKinney 1) Turnovers: Hickory (14) McDowell (10) Fouled out: Hickory (Bell 1:00—fourth, Thurman :37—fourth, Freeman :03—fourth)