Huge comeback propels Eastern Randolph boys to state final

Eastern Randolph team members and coach Johnny Thomas – with arms raised – celebrate the Class 1-A West Region title. (PJ Ward-Brown/Randolph Record)

MORGANTON – Eastern Randolph rallied from a 21-point halftime deficit to keep its season alive and advance to a state championship in boys’ basketball for the first time.

The Wildcats pulled out a 62-59 victory against Bishop McGuinness in the Class 1-A West Region final Saturday afternoon at Freedom High School.

“As the coach, even I’m at awe at what they just did,” first-year Eastern Randolph coach Johnny Thomas said of his players.

Eastern Randolph’s Pierce Leonard goes up for a shot in front of Jamison Graves of Bishop McGuinness. (PJ Ward-Brown/Randolph Record)

Eastern Randolph (29-2) will face Wilson Prep (26-7), a 63-57 winner against Bertie in the East Region final, next Saturday for the state championship in either Chapel Hill or Raleigh.

Fourth-seeded Bishop McGuinness led 41-20 at halftime before the third-seeded Wildcats stormed back. Eastern Randolph scored the first 13 points of the second half and was within 49-43 going to the fourth quarter.

“We ain’t going to lose here,” senior guard Pierce Leonard said. “We’re too close to it. We traveled three hours to get up here. We weren’t trying to go home like that.”

Leonard scored 24 of his 28 points in the second half.

Eastern Randolph had never been as far as the regional semifinals until this year, but it look bleak midway through the regional final.

At halftime, Thomas had a message about trying to extend the team’s record-breaking postseason: “We’ve already made history. Now we’ve got to do it again.”

The Villains (25-6) took three potential tying shots on the last possession and missed them all. Long forgotten was their 11-0 lead to start the game.

Timothy Brower had 13 points and Nicah Taylor posted 11 points for Eastern Randolph, which won its 10th game in a row.

And it was the Wildcats’ second second-half comeback of the week after winning the regional semifinal Tuesday night at South Stokes.

“I wasn’t really feeling any pressure because we still had plenty of time when they did foul out,” Leonard said. “Our bench players just had to really step up and do their part in the game.”

Eastern Randolph’s Nicah Taylor makes a steal in front of Bishop McGuinness guard Andrew Schrage. (PJ Ward-Brown/Randolph Record)

Three Eastern Randolph fouled out, including team scoring leader Davonte Brooks and reserve center Jani Norwood in the third quarter. Brooks had two points.

“With me in there, it would have made it a little bit easier,” Brooks said. “But my boys pulled through, came through with a ‘W’ my senior year. Now we’re going to the ‘ship.”

Brooks said the Wildcats, who were 6-for-8 on second-half 3-point attempts, remained motivated even as the challenge heightened throughout the first half.

“We just don’t want to lose,” Brooks said. “That’s what really jump-starts it.”

Leonard’s 3-pointer gave Eastern Randolph its first lead of the game at 54-51.

Thomas said without much of a basketball tradition, Eastern Randolph needed to overcome all sorts of obstacles against a Bishop McGuinness program that has played on similar stages in the past.

“They’ve been in this situation way more than we have,” he said.

Jamison Graves scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half for Bishop McGuinness, which shot 11-for-25 on free throws.

By Randolph Record