Recharged Warriors catching second wind ahead of Eastern Alamance clash
J.F. Webb coach Leo Brunelli placed an emphasis on depth from day one of the Warriors’ season.
Webb had five players in double figures in its season-opening blowout win at South Granville, but Brunelli wasn’t satisfied. He wanted “six, seven, eight” players in double figures.
That kind of scoring never came against high-level opponents for the Warriors, who stuck mostly to a six-man rotation into the end of 3-A Carolina Conference regular season play and the league tournament.
Brunelli has revved up the substitutions during the team’s state playoff run following an emotionally and physically draining conference tourney that featured a last-second win over Cardinal Gibbons and a loss at Chapel Hill in the final.
The Warrior coach anticipates the traffic at the scorer’s table to continue in Friday night’s Eastern Regional semifinal showdown with third-seeded Eastern Alamance (25-5) at Fayetteville’s Crown Colisuem.
“There was going to be a time it was going to happen this year,” Brunelli said of increased subbing. “As a coaching staff, we were hoping it was going to happen a little bit earlier — we were projecting mid-January — and instead it got pushed back to late February.”
The Warriors’ starting five usually consists of Isaiah Hicks, Mitron Terry, Tyrek Beverly, Stefan Cates, and Devonte Williams with garbage man Bryan Smith coming off the bench.
Perimeter players Mack Lyon and Tyler Thomas have seen an increased role in playoff wins over Asheboro, Southern Wayne and Chapel Hill.
“They’ve earned the minutes and they’ve been very effective,” said Brunelli. “It’s all timing, gut, how our coaching staff is feeling. We just didn’t feel six was enough to win a three-game week and a two-game Friday-Saturday series.”
Forward Tre Wilkerson could also be added to the mix if he can recover from a hand injury.
The fourth-seeded Warriors (24-5) face an Eastern Alamance team that favors an up-tempo style, led by 5-foot-7 point guard Lamont Robinson, the Mid-State Conference player of the year.
Brunelli compared Robinson to former Chapel Hill guard and current Charlotte 49er Denzel Ingram.
“He’s their leader,” said Brunelli. “He’s their engine. Hopefully we can slow him down a little bit.”
Robinson averages 21.3 points per game and scored more than 1,500 points this season.
The Eagles’ second leading scorer, Kedar Sweezer, measures in at 6-foot-4 and is joined in the post by 6-foot-7 Jalyn Riley, averaging six points per contest.
A concern for any team facing the Warriors is how to handle their McDonald’s All-American, Hicks.
“We’re going to run some different people at him,” said Eastern coach Jay McPherson. “We’ll probably guard him with my big boys some and put one of my best defenders on him some. We’ll just have to see what works. Kind of be trial and error.”
McPherson said his Eagles go eight or nine deep. Eastern advanced to the regionals with playoff wins over Orange, Southern Lee and Fayetteville Westover, which knocked Webb out of the third round last season.
Neither team has made the regionals in recent years.
Webb knocked Eastern out of the first round of the 2011 state playoffs and the two are former Mid-State Conference rivals.
“I tell you what, going to Mebane was never an easy day,” said Brunelli. “There was never an easy game over there. And I would think they would say the same about coming to Oxford.”
The Eagles are riding a 16-game win streak that included a Mid-State tourney title.
Webb fell behind by double digits early in last week’s third-round win at No. 1 Chapel Hill, but seized control in the third quarter before outscoring the hosts 21-7 in the fourth quarter.
“We just have to play our game,” said Brunelli. “I’m just so proud of how our kids compete. This is the time of year you have to be playing that way.”
Familiar opponents collide in Friday’s first semifinal
Friday’s other 3-A Eastern Regional semifinal features two teams that know each other very well.
No. 1 Rocky Mount (25-2) has eliminated No. 3 West Craven (25-4) from the state playoffs in each of the last four seasons.
The defending state champion Gryphons, making their fourth consecutive regional appearance, bounced West Craven by 20 points last season in Fayetteville.
“They’re always here,” said West Craven coach Bryan Goehring. “They don’t have a rebuilding year. They just reload every year. You always know whenever you come to regionals, they’re going to be one of the teams that’s here.”
Rocky Mount lost six players from the state championship team, but the returning players played important roles on that squad.
“They still have bigs. They still have guards,” said Goehring. “They play really good defense and try to force turnovers, try to create in transition. That’s kind of their calling card and that’s what they’re doing this year too.”
Big East Player of the Year Dante Battle leads Rocky Mount in scoring with 18.8 points per game.
“When we as a staff want him to just take over and be selfish, he continues to add his teammates to the mix,” Gryphons’ veteran coach Michael Gainey said of the junior. “He has a lot of tricks up his sleeve that we still haven’t seen yet.”
Rocky Mount’s frontcourt features Jaquell Bryant, a 6-foot-8 sixth man. Gainey’s son, Michael, is second on the team in scoring with 12.1 per contest.
West Craven is guard heavy, boasting two-time Coastal Conference Player of the Year Josh Cuthbertson, a USC Upstate recruit averaging close to 30 points per game.
The 6-foot-5 shooting guard also leads the team in rebounding with 12.7 a game.
“We’re going to do our best to try to control that paint,” Gainey said, “and make sure they only get one attempt at the basket.”
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