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TOUGH WAY TO END

RED OAK -- As time passes, members of the Northern Nash High School boys basketball team will be able to erase the pain, and instead focus on the numerous accomplishments the Fighting Knights achieved this winter as part of one of the school's most historic hoops campaigns.

But that scenario was difficult for the Knights to comprehend in the aftermath of last Tuesday's home loss to Eastern Guilford in the Elite Eight of the Class 3-A State Playoffs at the NNHS Gymnasium.

Northern Nash had advanced that far with a trio of final-minute victories, and it was almost expected that the Knights would once again deliver in the clutch in front of an overflow crowd.

But with the outcome of the showdown in doubt down the stretch, the Fighting Knights had the tables turned on them as Eastern Guilford scored 13 of the game's final 15 points to rally for a 62-52 decision.

Northern Nash, which had led for most of the matchup, saw its conference championship campaign close with a 25-4 overall mark.

What made the defeat even more difficult to digest was the fact that Eastern Guilford won again last Saturday in the regional title game and will play for a state championship this Saturday.

But Northern Nash started strongly last Tuesday and didn't trail until the Wildcats scored on a layup with 3:55 remaining to surge ahead 47-45.

Northern Nash countered with a layup from Raymond Bullock, who also nailed two free throws to put the Knights back in the lead at 49-47.

Northern's final advantage came at 50-49 when Undray Cherry nailed one of two free throws at the 2:14 mark.

But the Wildcats would control the proceedings from there, beginning with an old-fashioned 3-point play from Nic Cheeley with 2:09 left.

After Northern Nash missed an outside shot, Eastern Guilford pulled the ball out before Jaylen Alston scored on a layup with 1:36 remaining.

The Knights couldn't buy a basket on the other end -- a distinctly different scenario than the club's previous three playoff outings, when everything seemed to go right when it mattered most for Coach Henry Drake's club.

Eastern Guilford tacked on two more free throws before Northern Nash's basket drought of over three minutes ended with a layup from Darius Spragley at the 33-second mark.

By then, the Knights had fallen behind 58-52, and the Wildcats would wrap things up with four more points.

Spragley, Northern Nash's senior point guard, capped off his outstanding career with a team-high 18 points.

While it wasn't the Cinderella finish the Fighting Knights had hoped for, it was still a hardwood season to remember in Red Oak.

Drake's third campaign in charge of the program would prove to be a prolific one as the Knights dominated the Big East Conference by going undefeated in the league in the regular season.

After a low-point loss to Wake Forest at the Bunn Christmas Tournament in December, the Knights responded to Drake's conference challenge by surging to the crown in impressive fashion.

With Spragley injured, the Knights were edged in overtime by Rocky Mount at the Big East Conference Tournament, but he was destined to return to the Class 3-A State Playoffs.

Northern slipped past Northeast Guilford in the first round and followed that dose of heroics by edging league rival Wilson Fike in the second round as Spragley scored his club's final six points -- and Darquez Flowers blocked a potential tying shot from the Demons in the closing seconds.

The amazing run continued in the third round against Fayetteville Terry Sanford, which had been in the state finals each of the last two years, including a championship in 2015.

But Spragley struck again with the eventual winning jumper at the seven-second mark, and Bullock followed with a blocked shot with two seconds left.

By the time they were done, the Fighting Knights had made their deepest surge in the playoffs in 22 years to cap off their outstanding campaign.

Pictured (Above): GOODY GETS TWO. Northern Nash's Raymond 'Goody' Bullock (with ball) drives toward the basket during last Tuesday's home loss against Eastern Guilford in the Elite Eight of the Class 3-A Boys Basketball State Playoffs at the NNHS Gymnasium. (Graphic photos by Geoff Neville)


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