RALEIGH — Prior to this season, the Northwood boys basketball team made its last state final appearance back in 2021, a season shortened by COVID restrictions.
The Chargers only played 17 games that year, the last of which was a loss to Weddington in the 3A final. Instead of playing at the normal venues like the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill and Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh in front of thousands of fans, Northwood played that year’s state final at 10:30 in the morning at Providence Grove High in Climax.
After a fourth-round exit in 2022, this year’s Chargers had a goal in mind of playing until the final weekend of the season. They accomplished the feat by earning a bid into the 3A boys finals against Central Cabarrus.
But with a chance to bring home some hardware Saturday night, Northwood couldn’t take advantage of its edge in height or talent, falling to Central Cabarrus, 65-51.
“I’m very proud of our guys with how they battled,” said Northwood head coach Matt Brown. “We had a terrific year. It wasn’t the outcome we expected or wanted, obviously, but I’m a blessed human being to be able to coach guys like these.”
Northwood (28-3) came out of the gate hot offensively. The Chargers set up back-to-back plays for 6-foot-10 senior Kenan Parrish to open the game, and he had no issue working past smaller defenders for two easy buckets. Drake Powell then hit a mid-range shot to put the Chargers up 6-0. But that was the biggest lead Northwood would have at any point Saturday.
Central Cabarrus finally settled in after the opening few possessions and began working offensively to counteract Northwood’s full-court pressure. The Vikings found success by pushing the ball down court to players in the corners, who either put up a 3-point attempt or drove baseline to find some open space and drag Northwood’s taller players out of the paint.
The long ball was crucial for Central Cabarrus in the first quarter. The Vikings nailed six threes, five of which came from seniors Adriel Miller and Gavin Bullock. At the end of the first period, the Chargers found themselves down, 24-15, thanks to Central’s ability to knock down outside shots.
“The first quarter really hurt us,” Brown said. “They jumped on us quick. We made a run, but with them shooting how they did, it was tough. In the second, third and fourth, we did what we normally do. Give them credit. They made their shots.”
The Vikings opened the second quarter on a 4-0 run, prompting Brown to call his first timeout of the night. Northwood was able to battle back to within eight points at halftime, but it was clear the final two quarters would be a slog the Chargers had not expected heading into the night.
Frustrations boiled over several times in the second half. After a Powell 3-pointer cut the score to 39-33 in the third quarter, Brown was called for a technical foul after arguing with officials that allowed Central Cabarrus to go up 41-33 and retain possession of the ball.
Brown’s assistants were equally perplexed with the officiating at times Saturday night. In the fourth quarter, Northwood volunteer assistant and former UNC star Tyler Zeller put his head in his hands in disbelief after Parrish was called for his second offensive foul of the period.
The frustration eventually bled into the minds of the players. On the next Central Cabarrus possession, Northwood was called for a blocking foul after harassing a Viking who was driving to the basket. Parrish took exception to the foul, spiking the ball on the court in front of the officials and screaming in front of the CC bench.
The outburst did more to amuse the Vikings’ bench than intimidate, and after another technical foul was called, Central Cabarrus canned another two free throws and took over possession in what was the final nail in the coffin for the Chargers.
“They did a really good job of trapping us and putting pressure on the ball,” Brown said. “I thought we handled it, at some points, pretty good. At other points, we didn’t.”
The only players able to do much offensively for Northwood was Powell, a UNC commit who totaled 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Parrish was the only other Charger in double-figures with 10 points on 5-of-10 shooting, while the rest of Northwood’s roster managed 24 points on 10-of-26 (38.4%) shooting from the field.
Despite not making a three over the final three quarters, Central Cabarrus scored points in other ways. Among the most effective strategies for the Vikings in the second half was flashing forward Desmond Kent to the high post. Playing against Northwood’s zone defense, Kent would either turn around and nail an uncontested mid-range shot or drag Parrish and fellow senior Max Frazier — who stands at 6-foot-8 — out of the paint to free up space for cutters and shots at the basket.
The strategy was the perfect answer to Northwood’s distinct size advantage, as it often forced Frazier and Parrish to make a decision on which open shot to allow on each possession. The Vikings were also able to rebound several of their misses.
“They’re a great team,” said senior Max Frazier. “They’ve been playing against bigger teams all season. I think they were kind of used to it, I guess. Them crashing the boards, all five guys, kind of hurt us, because we didn’t really box out.”
Defensively, Central Cabarrus completely overwhelmed Northwood’s ball-handlers, forcing turnover after turnover over the game’s final two quarters. The Chargers finished the night with four more giveaways (19) than assisted baskets (15). Cabarrus held an 8-2 advantage in fast-break points and a 20-10 edge in points off turnovers. The Vikings also managed the same number of paint points (28) as the Chargers.
“They were just a good team that played well together,” Powell said. “I feel like we were battle-tested, but we just came up short against Central Cabarrus, which is obviously a very talented team.”
With its 2022-23 season now over, Northwood will now shift its focus to the offseason. The Chargers will graduate two senior starters in Parrish and Frazier, but they will welcome back Powell, who will be among the top seniors in the entire state next season. This year, the junior finished the season as Northwood’s leader in points (18.6), rebounds (7.0) and assists (4.1) per game.
Among the other players expected back next season are Fred Whitaker, who missed the majority of the playoffs with a knee injury, as well as starter Jake Leighton and reserve contributors Ashton Elliott, Cam Fowler and Griffin Hobbs.
One name to watch out for next year is current freshman Chad Graves, a 6-foot-8 forward who seems like the obvious choice to take on some of the minutes left behind by Frazier and Parrish.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.