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ROCKY MOUNT — As the final seconds ticked away in Wednesday’s 3-A Big East Conference boys basketball tournament semifinal against Southern Nash at Rocky Mount High, Fike senior guard Jaylen Ward dribbled past midcourt and made the announcement — as if the soon-to-be 60-46 final score didn’t sufficiently do the job.
Not only did the Golden Demons (17-8) advance into Friday’s 7:30 p.m. championship game against top-seeded Northern Nash at Rocky Mount Event Center, but Fike may well have a first-round home game next week when the North Carolina High School Athletic Association postseason commences.
The Demons also clinched the No. 2 seed for playoff purposes from the conference with the win after Fike and Southern Nash split their regular-season meetings and finished tied for second in the standings. The Firebirds had the second seed for the Big East tournament and quarterfinal-round bye on the basis of sweeping No. 4 Hunt. But absent a head-to-head sweep, the second and final automatic playoff spot from the Big East was contingent on furthest postseason advancement.
Thus, advantage Fike, which forced 16 turnovers and overcame early foul trouble. Leading 25-22 at the half, Fike turned what was a half-court style of game into its preferred pace after its senior backcourt of Ward and Elijahwon Cooper began asserting itself with takeaways and easy baskets. Fike forced Southern Nash (14-9) into seven costly takeaways in a third quarter that saw the Demons proceed to a clinching 48-34 advantage, their largest lead outside of the final score.
“That’s what helped us to win,” Fike head coach Brent Secrest said of the turnovers and transition play. “Because we are not a real good half-court team. We can play half court, but it’s going to be close. But if we can get out and run and get some steals, that’s more to our liking, for sure.”
Cooper had a game-high 23 points, including eight in the third quarter. Southern Nash cut the deficit back to five on two occasions in the third, but from 35-30, Cooper hit a floater and Ward polished off a Firebirds’ turnover with a layup. A 3-pointer from senior Jeffrey Dickerson put Fike up 44-33, and Ward turned another Southern Nash giveaway into a layup to give the Demons a 48-34 edge entering the fourth quarter.
That third-quarter surge forced Southern Nash to abandon its zone defense in favor of a man-to-man approach, which was something Firebirds head coach Robbie Kennedy did not wish to employ with Fike’s speed in the backcourt. By the fourth quarter, the Demons had the floor spread to their liking for easy drives to the basket.
“They hit some shots, and we had to play them man,” Kennedy said. “And their guards are pretty good. The biggest thing is, I don’t think our guys fought. I thought they hit us in the mouth, and we just didn’t respond, which is the first time it’s happened all season. Credit them, they made some shots. We didn’t really want to play them man because they’ve got a couple of guys that can handle the ball pretty good. They play four guards and were able to spread us.”
Fike trailed 10-3 at the outset as the Demons quickly encountered foul trouble. Southern Nash entered the one-and-one just 2:44 into play, but shot just seven free throws in the first half. Turning to different lineup combinations that included junior Trevon Atkinson and junior Mason Lee, Fike overcame its foul issues and led 25-17 on a layup by senior Moses Parker and a steal and subsequent dunk by Cooper. Only a personal 5-0 run from Southern Nash junior Chris Allen enabled the Firebirds to close the gap to a single possession at halftime at 25-22.
Allen had 11 points and six rebounds for Southern Nash, which outrebounded the Demons 28-23. Senior Darius Edmundson had 12 points and seven boards, but the Firebirds could never find a consistent offensive rhythm against Fike’s zone.
Parker picked up his fourth personal foul for Fike with 1:09 to play in the third quarter and didn’t play in the final period, but the Demons’ guard play turned his absence into a non-issue. Loose ball retrievals tilted toward Fike, particularly in the second half.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was our biggest win, but we needed it,” Cooper said. “We played hard, we played good defense and stopped them in transition.”
Southern Nash crept to within eight on Edmundson’s 3-pointer with 3:05 remaining, but didn’t score the rest of the way. Fike closed on a goaltending call credited to senior Zy’ree Wilder, a Cooper spread drive to the basket and a layup from senior Kavaris Evans off the Firebirds’ final turnover.
Now, Fike meets Northern Nash (23-1), a 70-61 winner over Hunt in Wednesday’s other semifinal with little to lose from a seeding perspective — but a chance at a championship nonetheless.
“The guys want the trophy,” Secrest said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Ward 9, T. Atkinson, Evans 4, Cooper 22, Dickerson 6, K. Atkinson, Wilder 8, Lee 3, Parker 8.
SOUTHERN NASH (46)
A. Allen 10, C. Allen 11, Jones, Foster, Parker 7, Royal 2, Vick 4, Edmundson 12.
Score by quarters:
Fike 9 16 23 12 — 60
Southern Nash 10 12 12 12 — 46