BEAR CREEK — A day before Thanksgiving break, Chatham Central opened its season with a heartbreaking loss to the South Davidson Wildcats.
With a little less than two minutes to play in the third quarter, the Bears had a seven-point lead — and somehow, by the end of the quarter, they were down by two.
The Wildcats went on to eke out a win, 54-52, in a barnburner, sending the Bears on the bus back to Bear Creek.
Over the holiday break, it was important that Chatham Central stew on the loss — reflecting on what they got wrong and mentally correcting their mistakes — because 10 days later, in the Bears’ first post-Thanksgiving contest, the Wildcats were coming to town for a rematch.
And the Bears made sure they were ready.
Chatham Central dominated nearly all facets of the game last Friday, shellacking the Wildcats, 64-45, in a tough, physical rematch to improve to 1-1 on the season.
It was a Bears team that looked much improved from the season opener, Bears’ Head Coach Robert Burke admits.
“The first game of the year, they came out shell-shocked,” Burke said following the win. “And nobody got on No. 33 (Wildcats senior Hayden Smith). … But I think the biggest thing tonight was our defense. Once they realized we had a good defense going, it spawned our offense. And taking No. 33 out of the ballgame, that helped.”
Smith was a thorn in the Bears’ side in the first matchup, scoring 22 points on six 3-pointers as the Wildcats torched the Bears from behind the arc (10-for-26, 38%).
Burke made it his point of emphasis to shut him down, no matter what, in the rematch.
If other members of the Wildcats beat them, so be it. But he wouldn’t let Smith be the one putting the nail in his team’s coffin.
“I’ve got to give it to (Smith), I think he dropped 22 points on us in the last ballgame and I said, ‘Not tonight,’” Burke said, “and I think that took their whole team out of rhythm. … I just didn’t want No. 33 getting on a roll and making those 3’s.”
While Smith was still able to score 10 points against the Bears — good for third-best on the team — he only hit a single 3-pointer and had just three field goals in total.
It’s the only time he’s scored fewer than 22 points this season.
The Bears won this game primarily due to their physicality on both sides of the ball.
They weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty in the trenches.
Even against a sharpshooting team like South Davidson — which averaged nine 3-pointers a game entering Friday’s contest and still managed to hit eight of them in the rematch — they decided to lock down the paint and dared the Wildcats to beat them from outside.
The Bears outscored the Wildcats in the paint, 48-12, and out-rebounded them, 39-20, including 12 offensive rebounds, despite not having any sort of significant height advantage.
They also racked up four blocks to the Wildcats’ one.
“I’ve been telling my guys, if you’ll stay with me and listen to me and learn my schemes,” Burke said, “then you’re going to be tough.”
Perhaps nobody played tougher than Bears’ freshman guard Reid Albright, who scored 17 points, including three 3-pointers, in his varsity basketball coming out party.
He also had eight rebounds and two blocks to go along with four steals as he spent his night terrorizing the Wildcats on both sides of the ball.
“He sees the court very well and he understands the game, that’s something you can’t teach,” Burke said. “He’s going to have a great year.”
What makes this Bears team special, according to Burke, is their ability to play much larger than they are.
Seniors Collin Lagenor (5-foot-9) and Malachi Moore (5-foot-8) are two prime examples, both of which aren’t afraid to knock themselves — and others — around in the paint to give their team second or third chances on offense or disrupt opposing post players on defense.
“(Lagenor) plays like he’s 6-foot-6 as strong as he is,” Burke said. “He gets inside and he does a lot of things for us, especially tonight, that you don’t necessarily see in the scorebook.”
Early on, it looked like it might have been a repeat of the first matchup between the two teams, with the Wildcats’ top-two shooters, Smith and sophomore Tanner DeLattre (18 points), splashing a pair of triples to give South Davidson a 6-4 lead just a few minutes into the contest.
From there, however, Bears senior Trey Clay hit a 3-pointer of his own, along with a gorgeous eurostep finish at the basket a couple of possessions later, to give Chatham Central a 9-6 advantage.
Albright followed it up with a pull-up 3-pointer in transition to make it 12-7 and complete a block on the other end to fire up his squad and give the Wildcats a glimpse of what they were in for.
South Davidson wouldn’t take the lead for the rest of the game.
While the Bears’ dominant win acted as a showcase for their defense and a breakout moment for Albright, perhaps more importantly were the contributions of two key seniors: Clay and Moore, neither of whom had picked up a basketball competitively since middle school/early high school.
This past offseason, the Bears graduated nine seniors, including star center Michael Moore, who’s now playing basketball at Appalachian State.
Instead of having a down year with very little senior leadership, however, Burke seems to have found something special in his upperclassman group, including Clay (12 points) and Moore (10 points), who are both providing a major spark for a Bears team with little varsity basketball experience.
“They’re the most athletic players that we’ve got on the team,” Burke said of Moore and Clay. “They give us a lot of ability on the court that we didn’t have without them. Rebounding, quickness. … After tonight, I’m tickled.”
After going on a 13-1 run to end the first quarter, the Bears came out to start the second with just as much firepower, racking up four steals in the first three minutes and feeding the hot hand as Albright downed two 3-pointers to help get the Bears out to a 27-7 lead.
By then, Chatham Central was on a 21-1 run and had all the momentum.
The Bears continued to play aggressively, controlling the paint and locking down the Wildcats’ best offensive weapons, throughout the half, cruising to a 41-20 halftime lead.
The second half was more of the same story — aside from a stellar fourth quarter from DeLattre, who scored nine points and played excellent defense to keep South Davidson within 20 points despite Chatham Central’s best attempt to blow the game wide open.
The Bears grabbed 27 of their 39 rebounds in the second half, including 11 on the offensive end, as their inside presence became even stronger after the break, staving off any chance the Wildcats had at a comeback and leading them all the way to a 19-point revenge win.
Chatham Central will finally face a team other than South Davidson this week, when they visit the Southwestern Randolph Cougars (2-2) on Tuesday and the red-hot Chatham Central Knights (8-1) on Friday.
While Burke said his team still has plenty to work on after the win over the Wildcats, it’s hard not to be impressed with the team’s 180-degree turnaround after Thanksgiving break.
“In a couple of games, I think we’ll be fine, as long as we don’t get a real good team that breaks our stride,” Burke said. “I think in the 1A/2A (split) this season, we’ll do pretty good.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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