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While just about anywhere the Greene Central boys basketball team has played this season is bigger than the “Ram Pen” — the school’s tiny gymnasium — Saturday’s game redefines “bigger” in that regard.
The Rams will face Marshville Forest Hills in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A championship game in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. To put that into perspective, the official capacity of the “Dean Dome” is 21,750 while the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the population of Greene County as 21,168 in July 2016.
To give his players an idea of the enormity of the arena, head coach Charles Harris had the Rams practice this week at East Carolina University’s Minges Coliseum in Greenville.
“We did the same thing (practicing at the University of Mount Olive’s Kornegay Arena) before the eastern regional. It’s a little bit different look when the backboard’s not attached to the wall,” Harris cracked before Thursday’s practice in Minges.
“We’re going to go over there and talk about the length of the court and the difference it means for a defensive assignments. where we’re supposed to be and that kind of stuff. Yeah, it’s a little bit different than what we have at Greene Central but that’s OK.”
And while Saturday’s state championship game, the first ever for Greene Central in boys basketball, certainly represents the biggest stage on which the Rams have played, they’re not exactly strangers to big games. After all, Greene Central made it to the 2017 2-A East Regional final, losing to eventual state champion Jacksonville Northside. In addition to playing Eastern Carolina Conference archrival Kinston in front of packed houses four times, Greene Central played in the John Wall Invitational just after Christmas in Broughton High’s Holliday Gym in Raleigh, going 1-2 with losses against North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 2-A semifinals Arden Christ School and NCISAA 1-A champion Fayetteville Trinity Christian. In one of their best performances of the season, the Rams rallied from 18 points down to beat NCISAA 1-A runner-up Greenfield and its McDonald’s All-American senior guard Coby White, 82-74 in overtime in the Phenom Hoops Feast of Champions in Fayetteville State University’s Capel Arena on Nov. 25.
Greene Central also played South Central, ranked No. 1 among state 4-A teams by MaxPreps.com for most of the season, twice (losing twice) and faced perennial rival and 2-A Eastern Plains Conference champion Farmville Central three times (winning all three).
“You know, that was the purpose for scheduling the way I scheduled,” Harris explained. “Some people didn’t quite see why or understand when we did it the first time, but obviously I hope now they can see why we went through the schedule that we did and our nonconference schedule, playing South Central twice that was an Eastern Regional final team, Farmville Central and of course our battles with Kinston. The John Wall and the Thanksgiving thing and we got to see Coby White, according to the record book he is the most prolific scorer in North Carolina. So, a lot of different looks that we’ve seen.
“Hopefully we’re battle-tested. Yes, there’s still going to be an adjustment to playing in the Smith Center but it’s not just us having to adjust as the other team is having to do the same thing. Hopefully, these kids are battle-tested to the point where we work through those first couple of minutes and get settled in and play basketball.”
Harris said the key to beating a Forest Hills team that, like Greene Central, lost in the regional final a year ago, is defending the 3-point shot, rebounding and taking care of the ball.
“We need to make sure we contest the 3-point shot and drive them off that line a little bit and not allow them to shoot pretty much set shots,” he said. “We’re going to have to sit down and defend the basketball and play our roles and do what we’re supposed to do on the defensive end. We definitely need to limit their offensive possessions to one look; we can’t give them three and four cracks at it.
“Offensively, we’re going to have to deal with some ball pressure and make sure we take care of it and not turn it over. A lot of times, turnovers for them turns into transition points. Be patient enough in our offensive sets to get the shots we want and not the first ones that come across.”
Harris said that regional final loss to Jacksonville Northside last year “burned” and it has been a motivating factor during what has been a hectic week of preparation.
“It’s also keeping us focused as far as what we need to do assignment-wise,” he said. “These kids are really dialed into what they need to do as a team to come out on top.”
With a lot going on, the Rams have found refuge on the practice floor.
“You know, it’s been an interesting week,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of distractions, but when we step inside the gym, I think both myself and the boys look at it as kind of an escape. Just forget all that other stuff and be inside those lines and do what we do on the basketball floor and prepare ourselves.”
And as far as fan support, Harris assured the Dean Dome would be packed.
“I’m pretty sure most of Greene County will be there so maybe we can change the shade of the Dean Dome to a little bit darker blue,” he said.