It was a smile which was one part happy and the other half relief.
After opening the season and his head coaching career with eight losses, North Central boys’ basketball coach Cary Phillips picked up that elusive first victory as the host Knights thumped Robert E. Lee Academy, 59-37, in Monday’s second game of the Mid-Carolina Credit Union Basketball Tournament in Boonetown.
NC took on in-county rival Lugoff-Elgin in Tuesday’s championship game while Robert E. Lee Academy met Buford in the third-place contest.
Phillips made no bones about wanting to get that first win in the books and for his team to get over the early season hump.
"It’s been a little nerve-wracking. I wanted to get it," he said. "It’s good to get a win."
Playing unselfish ball on the offensive end of the court, NC placed nine players in the scoring column led by 12 points from senior forward Will Jenkins. That was backed by 11 points from sophomore forward Zach Jones. Sophomore center Jeremiah Jenkins was next with nine while classmate Da’Shon Bethea, who was called up from the junior varsity for the tournament, was next with eight points.
The first-year NC head coach said distributing the ball to the open man was near the top of his team’s to-do list coming into this pairing.
"We talked in our pre-game about being unselfish and playing inspired basketball and asking them ‘What inspired you to play ball?’" Phillips said. "We wanted them to be unselfish because we have some (seniors) who aren’t going to be here next year. We wanted them to put their heart into it and leave it all on the court and, they did a good job with it."
Spreading the wealth allowed NC to get open looks throughout the night starting early on as Jeremiah Jenkins sandwiched a Jones layin, as the result of a steal, and a 3-point basket with a five-foot jumper and a layin as the hosts jumped to a 9-5 lead in the first three-plus minutes of play. The opening stanza ended with the Knights leading, 12-11, after the Cavaliers received a trey from Conner Floyd to close the first quarter scoring.
The Cavs took their first and only lead in the opening 22 seconds of the second quarter as Caleb Watson stuck a 15-foot jumper to make it 13-12. NC then applied more defensive pressure and found space in the running and passing lanes as the Knights went on a 14-0 tear with Will Jenkins scoring the first seven of those points on a pair of layups and a 3-point jumper to make it 19-13. Quindarius Bethea added a pair of baskets in the spree, including a breakaway layin which made it 26-13 with 1:51 left in a half which ended with Matthew Tidwell breaking the seven-plus minute drought by knocking down a trifecta with 11 ticks left in the first half clock.
Entering the locker room with a healthy 26-16 advantage, Phillips asked his team to put this one away in the third quarter. They did that but only after a Clayton Chewning layup which brought the guests to within 26-18.
The Knights responded with six straight points including layins from Jay Parks and Delmarcus Wood, both coming off steals, to extend the lead to 32-18. NC hiked its advantage to a game-best 18 points, at 41-23, with a Will Jenkins layin and a 3-ball from Cam Holley as the home side led, 41-24 entering the final quarter.
With Robert E. Lee Academy still within striking distance at the break, Phillips said he used part of his halftime talk to ask his players to put the hammer down in the third quarter.
"That was our message at halftime," he said, "to really push the ball up the court and get a lead and then, get some of our inexperienced guys in there to play. That worked out good for us. We pulled up two guys from the jayvee (Da’Shon Bethea and Holley) and they got a good amount of playing time tonight."
The Cavs were unable to make any headway in the final eight minutes as NC’s lead never slipped under 18 points.
With a third meeting with L-E on deck before heading into the teeth of the Region 4-AA campaign next week, Phillips said this was a good starting point for his team for the second half of the season.
"We’re getting there," he said. "It’s a slow process, but it’s a good one. It’s good to get the win, though."
REL (37): NC (59): Score by quarters:
REL (37):Matthew Tidwell 5 1-2 15, Clayton Chewning 4 1-2 9, Bryce Barrett 2 1-2 5, Conner Floyd 1 0-0 3, Caleb Watson 1 0-0 2, Wesley Alexander 1 1-2 3. Totals: 14 4-11 37
NC (59):Jeremiah Jenkins 4 1-2 9, Zach Jones 4 1-2 11, Will Jenkins 5 1-2 12, Josh Flores 2 0-0 4, Quindarius Bethea 3 0-4 6, Jay Parks 1 0-2 2, Delmarcus Wood 1 0-0 2, Da’Shon Bethea 2 3-4 8, Cam Holley 2 0-0 5. Totals: 24 6-16 59
Score by quarters:First: NC, 12-11; Halftime: NC, 26-16, Third: NC, 41-24; Three-point goals: REL 5 (Tidwell 4, Floyd), NC 4 (Jones, W. Jenkins, D. Bethea, Holley)