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Knights hold off Central, stay in tie atop Region 4
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CENTRAL’S DEVIN RUSHING FINDS his path blocked by North Central center Tyrek Jenkins in Friday’s 51-46 NC victory inside The Castle. - photo by Tom Didato/C-I

With his team holding a precarious 47-46 lead over visiting Central in the closing 40 seconds of play Friday, North Central’s Tyrek Jenkins took the inbounds pass, got his defender on his left hip and drove to the basket for a layin and then, drained an accompanying free throw.

Having converted the traditional 3-point play, the 6-foot-5 senior center helped the Knights to a game-closing 6-0 run to leave The Castle with a hard-earned 51-46 victory over the suddenly resurgent Eagles.

The victory kept the hosts abreast with Lee Central --- which lost to Central on Tuesday --- atop Region 4-AA with identical 7-1 conference marks. The two sides meet Friday in Boonetown. Before tha, however, NC (10-5) hosts Chesterfield tonight while Lee Central is home to face Lewisville in their final warm-ups in front of Friday’s showdown.

Before his team could look ahead to a rematch with Lee Central, NC head coach Kerry Hayes had to navigate through Central. Not only were the visitors flying high following their overtime upset win against LC, but the Knights were without leading scorer and their primary ball handler, Markell Portee, who watched from the sidelines in street clothes while nursing an ankle injury.

That injury put the scoring onus on several players for the hosts. No player was asked to come up bigger than Jenkins who scored 11 of his game-high 19 points in the closing 10 minutes and five seconds of the contest. None of his eight baskets from the field loomed larger than the one which all but put the dagger in the Eagles’ hopes of a second upset in as many games.

“I get on Tyrek so much but that was a huge play,” Hayes said of the bucket and foul shot which stopped the clock with 29.6 ticks left in the game. “When he drove, he saw the lane was there and he took it to the hole and got an ‘and one.’ That was awesome.”

With Portee out, but expected back for tonight’s contest, the Knights looked to seniors Avante’ Reynolds and Esteban Rodriguez to handle the duties at the point. Not having a third guard such as Portee hurt the Knights, especially when Central hiked up the defensive intensity with a full-court press which turned a 45-40 deficit with less than five minutes left to play into a 46-45 Eagle lead after a conventional 3-point play from Brandon Edmond --- following an NC turnover --- capped a 6-0 Central flurry with 64 seconds left.

NC ended a dry spell of more than five minutes with a pair of Jamel Jones free throws with 43.2 seconds left which touched off the closing 6-0 NC run which included Jenkins’ 3-point play and a game-ending free throw from Rodriguez in the closing 17 seconds which came after Central rushed down the floor and fired up an air ball on a 3-point attempt following the Jenkins free throw.

Not having Portee on the floor led to the Knights having to make some changes on offense with one less set of legs and ball handling skills unavailable.

“We had to play smarter. We had to play as team,” Hayes said. “I told our guys before the game that we had to play solid defense and we needed guys to be able to handle the ball. 

“Markell is our primary ball handler but, our guys stepped up tonight. I’m so proud of them. Our goal is to have less than 15 turnovers a game and tonight, I think, we did that.”

In a game in which the Eagles led at the end of the first three quarters, the visitors were clinging to a 40-39 advantage after a third quarter in which Jenkins scored his team’s final six points and used a stickback and taking an inbounds feed under his own basket for a bucket to help NC narrow what became a 40-39 deficit.

The Knights extended their run to 10 straight points by scoring the first three baskets of the fourth quarter. The rally opened with Reynolds driving for a pair in the opening half minute. Nearly a minute later, Tyler Faulkenberry worked his way for a back-door layin before Jenkins delivered a short baseline jumper with 5:55 left to give the hosts a 45-40 lead.

Having extended their defense to 94 feet, the Eagles knocked down three of four free throws, the third of those coming from Robert Price to close to within a pair at 45-43 with 1:55 left. An NC turnover led to a Price layup and after being fouled on the play, a free throw as Central regained the upper hand at 46-45.

NC got the ball to Jenkins, whose missed shot was corralled by Jones who was fouled on the play and knocked down both freebies for the 47-45 lead with 43.2 seconds left. After the guests rushed a shot and NC gained control of the ball following the miss, it came time for Jenkins to do what he does best in helping close the game with less than 30 seconds to play.

While Central used full-court pressure to disrupt the NC offense, the Knights were stingy on defense, as well, allowing the Eagles just one basket over the final nine minutes and 52 seconds of the game.

“Our guys were tired but they sucked it up,” Hayes said. “Toward the end of the game, they stepped it up on defense. They got in the face of their 3-point shooters and, that made a big difference down the stretch.”

Central used the 3-point shot to grab a 15-11 lead after a first stanza in which three different players hit from distance. It was Edmond who was the chief culprit as the 6-foo-1 senior came off the bench on fire, hitting a 3-ball and scoring seven straight points in one stretch in the final three minutes of the first quarter.

NC righted the ship by opening the second quarter on a 12-3 run, including scoring the first seven points of the stanza with Jenkins completing a traditional 3-point play before jumpers from Reynolds and Faulkenberry gave an 18-15 lead to the hosts. NC kept the lead at 25-24 after Zy Dunham went inside for a pair only to have Central point guard Caleb Cofield find his way for a putback in the final five seconds of a first half which ended with the visitors leading, 26-25.

“They have three guys who can shoot it,” Hayes said of the Central offense. “We’re running that 2-3 zone and our guys really have to be active and get a hand in their face. When we were getting tired, we weren’t putting a hand in their face.”

NC knotted things at 31 and later used a Jenkins putback to tie the game at 35 with 2:05 to play in the third. Central countered with a trey from Edmond and baskets from Price and Cofield to hike its lead to 40-35 before Jenkins closed the third with consecutive baskets.

With this scare behind his team and with a Friday night game with Lee Central looming ahead, Hayes said his team can ill afford to slip up and let Chesterfield, which has two wins in league play, come into The Castle and be a spoiler.

“It can be a (trap game),” Hayes said in response to a question. “I told our guys that we have to play one game at a time. We have to come back on Monday, refocus, have a good day of practice and get ready for Chesterfield.”

CHS (46): Caleb Cofield 4 0-0 9, Robert Price 5 2-3 13, Brandon Edmond 6 2-3 17, Jemiah Smith 0 1-4 1, Devin Rushing 1 4-4 6. Totals: 16 9-14 46

NC (51): Esteban Rodriguez 2 1-2 5, Zy Dunham 4 0-0 8, Avante’ Reynolds 3 3-4 9, Tyrek Jenkins 8 3-4 19, Tyler Faulkenberry 2 0-0 4, Jamel Jones 2 2-2 6. Totals: 21 9-12 51

Score by quarters: First: CHS, 15-11; Halftime: CHS, 26-25; Third: CHS, 40-39; Three-point goals: CHS 5 (Edmond 3, Price, Cofield), NC none