Another Cavalier clash
The Cavaliers have had a memorable 2013-14 season — both East Rutherford and North Rowan.
The No. 7 North Rowan Cavaliers (19-5) enter the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) Western Regional semifinals after earning a 75-63 win over crosstown rival Salisbury, a hard-fought 65-62 win over No. 3 East Lincoln and an overtime 77-70 road win at No. 2 Shelby.
The road to Greensboro for the No. 11 East Rutherford Cavaliers (21-5) has been slightly easier. Aside from a tight 62-57 win over West Stokes on the road in the second round, East Rutherford won its first and third round games by an average of 32.5 points.
Despite the different paths through the playoffs, both teams find themselves in Thursday night's 8:30 p.m. semifinal at UNC-Greensboro's Fleming Gymnasium with a trip to the regional final at stake.
"Playing those tough early games will have us prepared for Thursday night," said North Rowan head coach Andrew Mitchell, who is currently in his fourth year at the helm. "It really is a grind."
MItchell bring a "big" team to Greensboro with a starting lineup that features just one player under six-feet tall and bench players that range up to 6-foot-7. That lineup has allowed North Rowan to take down favorites like East Lincoln and Shelby.
"As far as defending them, East Rutherford isn't going to change anything. We won't come out with some junk defense. We're going to do what got us here," East Rutherford head coach Brad LeVine said. "[Mitchell] does a great job coaching. He has a bunch of real good athletes. We're not going to go on the court and be a whole lot faster, a whole lot quicker or jump a whole lot better — it's going to be a fairly even game.
"I know that they play really hard, they're physical and they like to go to the boards — our work is really cut out for us."
East Rutherford boasts two players that stand 6-foot-6 (Travis Waldroup-Rodriguez and Trey Dawkins) and another at 6-foot-5 (Shakari Jackson), but LeVine expects even his smaller players to be able to handle North Rowan.
"You have to defend with what you got and I know what my kids are capable of. I have some kids that are really strong for their size and can defend a little bigger than they are," LeVine said. "Not a lot of high school teams play a true inside-outside game anymore. They just don't. It's a perimeter game now. It's a transition game. It's an up-and-down the floor game and I'm sure that's the way North Rowan would probably rather play just like us."
As much as LeVine is concerned with the sheer size of North Rowan, Mitchell wonders if his big lineup can keep up with the athleticism and speed of the Cavaliers from Rutherford County.
"We know that they like to run the ball up and down the floor. We know they like to score real quick and even do real well in the half-court sets. We expect them to try and put up a lot of points," Mitchell said. "If our big guys don't rebound it's going to force us to go small to keep up with them running up and down the floor. I think our size could be as much of a disadvantage and it is an advantage."
Many East Rutherford fans expected to see conference foe Shelby Thursday night, but North Rowan's victory kept East Rutherford from facing an opponent that has beaten them on six-straight occasions. Mitchell is aware of the problems that Shelby has given East Rutherford, but he doesn't put too much stock into the comparisons.
"At this point that really doesn't me a whole lot because teams tend to play above their heads when it gets to this point," Mitchell said. "It really means absolutely nothing that Shelby beat them twice. We still have to play really well to beat this team."
"The thing is that we would have been playing somebody we know (if Shelby had won)," LeVine said. "When you're playing somebody new and they were able to beat Shelby, you know they have a good team."
Aside from the actual game on the court, LeVine is thrilled to be back in the regional picture after missing out on a trip to Greensboro in 2013.
"I'm just tickled for the kids," LeVine said. "This group has really come a long way."
Aside from bonafide stars in Devonte Boykins and Waldroup-Rodriguez, LeVine has pieced this team together with savvy veterans like Jackson and Kaleb McEntyre, newcomers like Dawkins and young pieces like Calvin Camp, Tyrese Carson and Tyson Blanton.
"I don't want to use the word misfits, but it's been a wagon of kids from everywhere," LeVine said. "As far as true varsity experience, we started off the year with not a whole lot — and you could tell. The way we were playing then and they way we're playing now are absolutely different."
The change in play is simply attributed to more experience on the floor and familiarity with one another.
"The more you do it, the better you get at it," LeVine said. "We've had four months together in the gym, on the court and we've spent some time together at some tournaments and we've gotten to know each other."
Typically with a team that lacks heavy varsity experience, coaches worry about stage fright inside of a big arena on a large stage for high school basketball. However, LeVine feels that this group is equipped for the moment considering how they've played in larger tournaments over the past two seasons including the Beach Ball Classic in 2012 along with the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament and Dorman Classic this season.
"We've played in a lot of bigger gyms and had some bigger situations than just playing at home or in some smaller gym," LeVine said. "Even though we don't have as much experience on the floor as I would probably like, I think the kids have played a lot of basketball and they'll be prepared for this moment."
If the kids seem to be nervous, LeVine said he's not above pulling out a tape measure to prove that the rim is still 10 feet above the floor.
"We've talked about this all along and not letting the moment be bigger than the game itself," LeVine said. "It's still the game of basketball. All we can do is show up, be ready to play and play hard. If we can do that, everything else will take care of itself."
Luckily for LeVine and East Rutherford fans, the team appears to be the hottest it's been all season.
"You have to peak at the right time and right now I think we have," LeVine said. "In the past two or three weeks, aside from a few bone-headed plays I like to talk about, I think that we've probably played our best basketball and I hope that it keeps going."
North Rowan Cavaliers (19-5)
Location: Spencer, N.C.
Colors: Green, white and gold
Conference: Central Carolina
Last Regional Championship: 2013 1A
Regional Appearances: 5
Last Regional Appearance: 2013
Western Regional Record: 6-3
State Championships: 2
Head Coach: Andrew Mitchell
NCHSAA Seed: West No. 7
Road to Greensboro: d. Salisbury 75-63, d. East Lincoln 65-62, d. Shelby 77-70
East Rutherford Cavaliers (21-5)
Location: Forest City, N.C.
Colors: Red, black and white
Conference: South Mountain 2A/3A
Last Regional Championship: 2012
Regional Appearance: 4
Last Regional Appearance: 2012
Western Regional Record: 2-3
State Championships: 1
Head Coach: Brad LeVine
NCHSAA Seed: West No. 11
Road to Greensboro: d. Wilkes Central 93-49, d. West Stokes 62-57, d. Forest Hills 81-58