CLIMAX — It isn’t time to dust off the key to Northwood’s trophy case just yet. It’ll have to wait another year.
The Weddington Warriors won a hard-fought game over the Chargers, 56-47, on Saturday morning at Providence Grove High School to earn their first-ever NCHSAA 3A Men’s Basketball State Championship, snapping Northwood’s streak of 10 straight wins and pushing them to 0-4 all-time in state title games (2000, 2009, 2011, 2021).
This season, Weddington embarrassed some of its opponents. But not Northwood.
Going into Saturday’s contest, the Warriors — who finished with a perfect 18-0 record — won 15 of their 17 games prior to the state championship by double-digits, including all three playoff games by at least 13 points.
Weddington looked like an immovable force for most of the season, especially as of late, and was inevitably a monstrous hill for the Chargers to climb.
The scoring junior duo of Chase Lowe (14 points, named the game’s Most Valuable Player) and A.J. Cook (10 points, named the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player on Saturday), who thrived all year long, were a daunting task for Northwood to defend.
But Northwood made them look human.
“I think our size and length kind of bothered them,” said Northwood Head Coach Matt Brown. “We have a lot of weapons on the inside and outside, so I don’t think they’ve seen that in the past this year.”
In the first half, Northwood’s height inside — most notably from 6-foot-8 freshman forward Jarin Stevenson — forced the Warriors to beat Northwood from the outside.
And they did just that.
Weddington hit five three-pointers in the first 15 minutes of the game. Many of them came on open shots in the corners where the Chargers, playing a 2-3 zone, couldn’t get to the open shooter in time.
In the second half, however, Northwood did a much better job guarding the perimeter after making some adjustments, allowing just one triple for the entire half.
One of Northwood’s weapons, freshman guard Drake Powell (15 points, six rebounds), was crucial for the Chargers, using his 6-foot-5 frame, length and athleticism to punish the Warriors for most of the day. In the opening seconds of the second half, Powell drained a three-pointer to tie the game at 26 and gave the Chargers a fighting chance after being down by seven, 23-16, in the second quarter.
However, after a jumper by Weddington senior center Caleb Wetherbee and a couple of free throws by Powell, the Warriors went on a 10-0 run — thanks to three Northwood turnovers, each of which Weddington converted into points on the other end.
All morning long, the Chargers struggled in the turnover department as they coughed up the ball 16 times compared to just seven for Weddington.
By the conclusion of the third quarter, the Chargers had cut the deficit to six off of a triple by Powell, but they ended up carrying almost none of that momentum into the final period.
Northwood touched the ball just once in the first 2 minutes, 17 seconds of the fourth quarter as Weddington passed the ball around to kill clock. But the team couldn’t get anything to fall offensively once they did, including a painful possession that featured two offensive rebounds and three three-point attempts, none of which connected.
The Chargers didn’t score again until there was 3:44 left in the game, but Weddington had its own offensive woes. The eventual champions made just one field goal in the entire quarter, which came on a fast break layup off of a steal by Cook with 11 seconds left, putting them up by 11.
While Northwood had opportunities in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit down further — including Powell’s three-pointer with 1:25 left to make it a five-point game again — Weddington didn’t allow them a chance to get back in it, as the Warriors’ first-half hot hand translated to the charity stripe, hitting nine of 10 free throws down the stretch (14-of-17 overall) to ice the game.
The loss was a tough one for the Chargers, who at times felt like a team of destiny after all of the comebacks, crazy finishes and obstacles they’ve faced this season. It almost seemed that this was their championship to lose, despite the powerhouse sitting on the other sideline.
Then again, were they even supposed to be here?
One year removed from a five-point Final Four loss to Westover (30-0) in Fayetteville in 2020 — a game which technically acted as the state championship game with the winners of the semifinals being named co-champions after the championship game was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic — Northwood didn’t imagine it’d make it even further this season.
“To be honest, it’s really meant a lot because nobody thought we were going to be here,” said Northwood senior guard Troy Arnold.
That 2020 Final Four team consisted of eight seniors and five juniors, with the seniors getting the bulk of the minutes. Of those juniors, just one of them (Arnold, 2.1 points) averaged more than two points per game for the Chargers last season.
Fast forward to this year, where four of those five juniors, now seniors, stepped into their roles flawlessly, taking charge of mentoring the younger players on the team and acting as leaders both on and off the court — the same way previous seniors helped them.
“Last year’s team, they kind of set the tone, but these seniors here, these four seniors, they had the hardest job,” Brown said. “And I told them in the summer, ‘You guys are going to have the hardest job to make sure this culture and this program goes the way we want it to go, and that is an upward hill,’ and they met that challenge.”
During the offseason, Brown said his players were tasked with making 21,000 shots as a way of perfecting their shooting ability and keep themselves fresh during the summer. Senior guard Colby Burleson made somewhere around 98,000, more than quadrupling the goal.
“Colby Burleson is probably one of the hardest-working individuals I’ve ever met in my life,” said Brown. “He loves the game. He’s a tremendous player, he loves to be around it. I think that motivates a lot of guys, to see him work as hard as he did and to get them working a little bit harder.”
Losing the production, the experience, the talent and the knowledge of those eight seniors would be a killer for most teams. Last season could have easily been a championship-or-bust year for Northwood’s program, knowing this year would be totally different.
But when you have a trio coming in that’s as special as Northwood’s, plans change. As has been discussed time and time again, the freshman trio of Powell, Stevenson and guard Fred Whitaker proved to be a force to be reckoned with.
Powell plays like a savvy and versatile veteran, able to do whatever his team needs of him, whenever they need it.
Stevenson (13 points, named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player on Saturday) is an athletic, towering player who wreaks havoc on the glass and can shoot from anywhere.
Whitaker (12 points, six assists vs. Weddington) is the member who gets the least shine of the three, but he manages the game as if he’s been playing at Northwood for years. He finds open players, makes cross-court passes, knocks down threes after going around screens to get open, all of it. He’s everything you want in a point guard.
And, of course, all three of them play phenomenal defense. They wouldn’t be Chargers if they didn’t.
“Personally, I think (Stevenson and me) were both trained for this, really,” said Powell. “Coming from AAU, I think we play at a pretty high level. … Coach Brown is a great leader, so we just trust him.”
The freshmen still have things to learn — they aren’t perfect — but the way Brown was able to integrate them into the team as quickly as he did, helping them flourish and lead Northwood to the state title game is a testament to both the talent level of the trio and the program’s culture that he’s built over the last four years.
While the Chargers will be without Arnold — who Brown called “the heart and soul” of the team — Burleson and centers Tucker Morgan and Aidan McLandsborough, all of whom played critical roles on this year’s 14-3 runner-up squad, the future is in good hands with a trio of young players who are only destined to improve.
Saturday’s game might not have gone the Chargers’ way. But the simple fact that this team, one with plenty of question marks before the year began, wound up winning three straight road playoff games to make it to their fourth-ever state title game appearance?
“I love every single one of those kids in that locker room. I feel for them, I really do,” said Brown. “... I just hope that they understand that this one moment doesn’t define who they are and they should be proud of what they accomplished this year.”
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