SMITHFIELD — First-round playoff games are not supposed to be this difficult. At least, not if you are the No. 1 seed in your bracket. These games are supposed to be a breeze, nothing more than a formality.
But don’t tell that to Neuse Charter School. Coach Jimmie Sanders and the Cougars probably won’t believe you.
Neuse Charter, seeded No. 1 in the Mideast pod of the NCHSAA 1A boys basketball tournament, got everything they could possibly want from pesky Pender County, and probably more before escaping with a hard-fought, 62-57 victory.
The Patriots, which entered the tournament as the Mideast’s 16th seed, threw a scare into the Cougars, building a 25-11 second quarter lead, then held a 52-50 advantage with 2 1/2 minutes left in regulation.
But the Cougars were able to respond to the challenges with late surges in the second and fourth quarters in improving to 23-5 for the season and advancing to a second round meeting at home Wednesday against either Granville Central or James Kenan.
“As soon as I saw this draw,” said Sanders, “I knew what we were in for. Pender is a very good team. Their record did not indicate what kind of team they are. Athletic; strong; big. They are not tall, but they are thick.”
Pender (9-16) was not intimidated by Neuse Charter’s record or seed, taking the fight to trhe Cougars from the opening tap.
Using all the superlative afforded them by Sanders, the Patriots made an effort to blow the Cougars out of their own gym, using an 11-0 run midway through the second period, building a 25-11 bulge.
That run was spearheaded by Shaquan Best, who was everywhere on the floor, grabbing rebounds, altering shots and forcing turnovers, while pitching in six of his game-high 19 points. He was complemented in the surge by Ramel Hansley, who closed it out with consecutive baskets.
Hansley, who would pickup the scoring for Pender with 10 in the second half, finished with 17 points, while Tyree Murphy chipped in 13.
Sanders burned two timeouts during the surge, looking for anything to stem the tide.
“We had to settle the kids down,” Sanders said. “The main thing was finding our chemistry - some guys were a little off, and we had to go with a different lineup, plus we got defensive minded.”
Once settled down, Neuse Charter took charge of the remainder of the half with a 17-2 run, forcing seven Patriots turnovers and 0-for-9 shooting from the floor.
Part of the ineffectiveness of the Patriots from the floor was the inability to hit the easiest of shots - four seemingly sure baskets rolled harmlessly off the rim; two more lay-up efforts missed the hoop altogether.
At the other end, what had not been going right for the Cougars, suddenly was, courtesy of a balanced attack.
Darrius Stevens, Devante Stevens and Darrin Robinson each contributed four points in the rally which saw Neuse Charter go into intermission with a 28-27 lead.
Also contributing in the rally were Jimmie Sanders III with a 3-pointer, while Tre’Shon Charles added a bucket.
Darrius Stevens kept the Cougars in the game in the third period, scoring six of his team-leading 15 points, including a follow of a missed 3-pointer, trimming a five point advantage by Pender to 43-40, and Devante Stevens added a basket to end the period at 43-42.
“Darrius is a man-child,” Sanders said. “He’s just a sophomore, and don’t even know how strong he is.
“He has a chance to be a really good player in the area- he has a good shot.”
Sanders added Darrius, along with Devante, were the backbone of the Cougars’ team.
Pender took its final lead, 52-20 with three minutes left on a follow shot by Murphy.
At that point, as they had in the first half, the Cougars kicked their game into another gear, with Darrius Stevens taking a dish from Robinson to tie the score, then gave Neuse Charter the lead to good as he sank a free throw to finish the three-point play.
Jourdan Sanders pushed the Cougars’ lead to five with consecutive layups, and NeuseChartersaltedthe game away at the free throw line, hitting 5-of-6 in the final minute.