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Won, and they’re in: After 1-8 start, Nash Central's victory Friday clinches tourney spot

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Nash Central's Avante' Simmons, center, yells in celebration while chest bumping teammate Chris High, left, after assisting on High's buzzer beating shot to end the first half Friday during the game against North Johnston at Nash Central High School.

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BY SAMUEL EVERS
Sports Writer

Friday, February 15, 2019

There probably isn’t ever a perfect time to breakout a between-the-legs layup in the middle of a high school basketball game.

But for senior Avante’ Simmons, playing in perhaps his final home game on the verge of a victory on Friday night against North Johnston after starting the season 1-8, it was as close to perfect a time as it would ever be.

So, Simmons, already with a 25-point lead in a game the Bulldogs (9-14, 6-4) eventually won, 68-38, got a breakaway steal to start the third quarter, and perfectly executed the acrobatic basket from the left side.

It was either that or a dunk. He chose the safe bet.

“I mean, I’m more successful with the between-the-legs layup,” said the 5-foot-10 Simmons, who finished with 13 points and four assists in the win. “So I went with the sure thing.”

Nash Central coach Renny Taylor would have preferred something closer to a 50-point lead.

But a senior’s got to do what he’s got to do.

“He’s never even done it in a scrimmage in practice. He’s done it messing around,” Taylor said. “We saw a kid do something similar once, and (Simmons) asked, ‘Coach, if I did that, what would you say?’ I said, ‘Well, it all depends. How much are we up?’ I will say this, it was a little too early for the game, but at least we were up some.”

In the end, the Bulldogs were all smiles after the game, with the victory having acted as a culmination of a successful uphill battle from a 1-8 start to the season.

Their final conference record, at 6-4 after beating the Panthers Friday night, wrapped up second place in the Eastern Plains Conference, which gives them a bye to start next week’s Eastern Plains Conference tournament and an automatic bid to the 2-A postseason, according to NCHSAA rules.

Nash Central, to begin the season, lost seven players from last season and limped to a 1-8 record after nine games and a 3-10 record after 13 before salvaging the season by winning six of its final 10 games.

The attitude rarely sagged, said Taylor, even during the worst losing streaks.

“I don’t know if surprised is really the word. It was just a matter of putting things together. We had to have the right personnel. We brought a couple kids up to junior varsity, and guys just started playing better,” Taylor said. “I can count one practice and game when I thought they had the blahs. Other than that, every practice they came like we were undefeated. I thought to myself, this is a little different than teams that struggle.”

In the victory Friday, Simmons had his 13 while Chris High added a game-high 22 points, including a first-half buzzer-beater from five feet behind the arc that stretched the lead to 25 points. The Bulldogs allowed only two made field goals by North Johnston in the entire first half, and used a 25-point second quarter to pull away.

Elsewhere, SouthWest Edgecombe won on Friday night against Wilson Beddingfield, 62-59, finishing the conference schedule at 5-5. Had Nash Central lost, they would slip into a tie with the Cougars, which SWE would have broken on the basis of a 2-1 record against the Bulldogs this season.

But Nash Central left little doubt on Friday night, meaning SWE will have to win the conference tournament to receive a postseason bid.

“I’m proud of my guys. When we were struggling we didn’t know what to do, but we had some pep talks and turned it around,” Simmons. “I was disappointed but we had faith in each other.”

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