A firm head fake and Rocky Mount High guard Isaiah Alston had an open look from the corner – exactly the way the play was designed, exactly where he wanted to be.
When he let the three-pointer off the end of his fingers from just in front of the Gryphons’ bench, coach Mike Gainey thought it was going to find the basket.
The shot drifted left, missed the basket and Rocky Mount lost to Wilson Hunt for the third time this season, 68-61, on Friday in the Big East Conference Championship at Rocky Mount High School.
“We got it to the key man to knock the three down,” Gainey said. “The problem is, the backside guy went to sleep and didn’t get the rebound.
“He was in position to do it, but they all stood around. We have to continue to play all the way through the end.”
Top-seeded Wilson Hunt (19-3) hit six free throws in the final 20 seconds and scored on its final nine possessions to knock off the Gryphons (15-8), who failed to win either the Big East Conference regular season title or the tournament championship for the first time in the current conference’s history.
Once Rocky Mount, which lost a 10-point lead to Wilson Hunt in the final three minutes during the regular season, took a three-point lead on a putback by Jaquell Bryant, the Warriors’ run began.
The Gryphons couldn’t stop them, and Wilson Hunt’s athleticism and pressure defense kept Rocky Mount off balance.
“We got a little tight and started rushing the ball,” Gainey said. “We got settled down – a key word, settled down. We were breaking the press. ... But we don’t know how to work the clock. We’re up by four or five, and we’re still running like we’ve lost our mind or there’s a fire somewhere.”
Regardless of Friday night’s outcome, the Gryphons will head into the NCHSAA 3-A state playoffs as the No. 2 seed from the Big East Conference.
They likely will play host to a first-round playoffs game, but Gainey and his team know that there’s no more time to learn how to win.
“We just know it’s win or go home,” Alston said. “We’ll have to play extra hard. ... We just have to stay focused and play hungry.”
Alston scored 14 points as one of three Gryphons in double figures. Dante Battle scored 17 points, and Immanuel King added 15. Both were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Josh Willingham, who was named tournament MVP, scored 17 points.
“Our thing is we’ve got to learn how to win from here on out,” Gainey said. “Once we lose this time, it’s night-night, and we’ll pack everything up. ... There’s no teaching. If you haven’t learned it by now, it’s a waste of time.
“All the coaching is done, they’ve just got to go play.”
Rocky Mount battled back from down 10 points early to take a one-point lead to start the second half. It was the Gryphons’ first lead since the opening possession.
The Gryphons led by five points midway through the third quarter, but Wilson Hunt rallied behind two of its stars who returned from injury.
Both Quan Kent (right leg) and Justin Jefferson (left shoulder) left the court for an extended period before coming back to help the Warriors rally.
“Our defensive folks didn’t quite do what they needed to do,” Gainey said. “We’ll learn. We’re learning.”
Wilson Hunt 68
Rocky Mount High 61
RMH 16 13 18 14 – 61
WH 22 9 13 24 – 68
RMH: Dante Battle (17 points); Immanuel King (15 points); Isaiah Alston (14 points); Jaquell Bryant (6 points); Brod Caudle (5 points); Kenaz Cooper (4 points).
WH: Josh Willingham (17 points); Justin Jefferson (14 points); Quan Kent (13 points); Keenon Tabron (9 points); Ra’Shod Simpson (7 points); Dexter Wright (4 points); Jaylen Gilliam (4 points).
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org