Saturday's loss not the end for Prep's Baker, Bryant

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Rocky Mount Prep senior Kalil Baker, left, is consoled by assistant coach Ron Cooper following the Jaguars' 82-57 loss to Pamlico County on Saturday in the NCHSAA Eastern Regional 1-A game at Capel Arena in Fayetteville.


Sports Writer

Saturday, March 3, 2018

FAYETTEVILLE — Rocky Mount Prep’s fairytale season of alley-oops, floor slaps, dynamic duos, raucous home crowds, postseason bans and lifted sanctions ended in Fayetteville on Saturday in a crashing heap, when No. 3 Pamlico County ran off an 18-0 run to turn what was once a one-point, fourth-quarter lead into an 82-57 victory.

The win sent the Hurricanes to the NCHSAA 1-A state title game next Saturday in Raleigh. It ended the Jaguars’ season at 25-1, two wins short of the undefeated season this cohesive group had talked about since the season began. It was perhaps the best season strung together in the school’s short history, a culmination of a tight collection familiar with each other and each other’s games. 

And, if you caught any of the 10 home games the Jaguars played this season — the ones in their beloved, worn-down, creaky, old gym with the dead rims  —- chances are you saw the city’s best two-man duo in action; the K-B connection of seniors Kalil Baker and Keyshawn Bryant, whose blend of bounce and basketball IQ combined for nearly 50 points per game. 

It all ended in an abrupt way on Saturday, but as those two sauntered into the interview room on the second floor of Fayetteville State’s Capel Arena with coach Jolly Manning to their left, their longtime mentor forwent the Xs and Os — the letdown of foul trouble and fourth-quarter runs — for a message about his two best players. For them, Saturday will not be the end. 

“Watching these guys grow from middle school to high school, from boys to men, was the best thing. In the classroom as well as the court, knowing they’re fine young men, they’re gentlemen, they’re very, very poised at all times — that’s all I’ve got to ask for as a coach. They’re not rude or disrespectful. That’s all I need,” Manning said. 

“They’re going to go to school to play basketball. That’s a good thing,” he continued. “My guys just don’t like losing — we’re taking this kind of hard. Good thing is they’re going to get a chance to play basketball on the next level. I think they’re going to do some damage at the college level.”

Baker and Bryant, who have not yet figured out where they’ll end up next fall, began playing together in middle school. As a freshman, Bryant was the youngest player on a varsity team that suffered through a dismal two-win season. They reconnected as sophomores, enjoyed a deep run last year, and had it all come together this season, earning the respect of teammates while terrorizing conference opponents and whoever else was in their way.

Baker was the leading scorer in 1-A; he went out swinging out Saturday, despite playing almost the entire second half with four fouls. He finished with 21 on 9 of 25 shooting. Bryant, who averaged more than 21 points per game this season, had 13 points against a defense that seemed to finally figure a way to contain the two. 

“It’s been...can’t explain it right now,” Bryant said. “It’s been amazing playing with that guy. My best friend, my brother on and off the court. It’s been amazing.”

Both have mentioned throughout the season — and talk to each other about — the possibility of ending up at the same college next year, wherever that dream might take them. 

“We have a lot more basketball to play,” Baker said. “Right now, I’m thinking about what I could have done better. I think eventually this season will set in, but not no time soon.”

Around the two stars this year were three perfectly matched role players; Trevor Batchelor, Sam Benson and Toyaz Solomon, all of whom seemed content to pick and choose their moments. 

That synergy came to an end on Saturday as well. The loss won’t break up that chemistry away from basketball. 

“Those boys can really hoop at the next level. They’ll go to college and be excellent basketball players. I hope the best for them. Those boys have been my brothers since middle school,” Batchelor, a junior, said after the game. “They’re going to do their thing in college. It don’t matter where, as long as they’re playing, I’m coming. I’ll be there.”