By Marc Pruitt
It took a little more than a year for Winston-Salem Prep to claim its redemption, but Saturday’s convincing 69-53 win against Lincoln Charter in the Western Regional championship at UNC Greensboro was worth the wait.
The Phoenix, which lost to Lincoln Charter on its home court last season in the Western Regional semifinals, were longing for another shot at the Eagles. A photo that the team used as a screensaver on their cell phones all season—one of Lincoln Charter celebrating its win last season that eliminated Prep—has served as motivation.
“These guys are happy that they just beat a team that took something from them last year,” Coach Andre Gould said. “That’s a very good team we just beat. An outstanding group of young men. Had we played this game 30 minutes later, the outcome could have been totally different. The timing was just right for our guys this time. This side of the bracket has been brutal, and we came out on top today. And I’m proud of them. Very, very proud of them. But they also understand that this task is not over.”
The win sends Prep (26-3) to the NCHSAA 1-A state championship game on Saturday at 2:30 at Reynolds Coliseum at N.C. State against Pamlico (22-3). It will mark the seventh 1-A title game appearance for the Phoenix, which has won four state championships (2008, 2012, 2013, 2014) and lost in the final in 2015 and 2016.
“We missed being there a lot last year,” Gould said. “It was an empty feeling last year not being there. Sometimes it’s your year and sometimes it’s not. But our guys were determined today and we were not going to be denied this year. We’re glad and fortunate to be going back.”
Justice Goodloe led Prep with 18 points against Lincoln Charter (26-5) on a day when the Phoenix wasn’t shooting the ball well from outside, which has been a strength all season.
Prep was just 4 of 22 (18.2 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc, which Gould said turned out to be a blessing.
“When we aren’t hitting those shots, it makes us play defense harder,” Gould said. “And not making those shots tonight I think made out guys focus more on getting stops.”
The tide of the game shifted in the second quarter following a 7-0 run by Lincoln Charter to give the Eagles a 21-16 lead. K.J. Watson (who finished with eight points) hit a bank shot that ignited a 7-0 from Prep to end the first half with a 23-21 lead. The Phoenix never trailed after that, and a shift in defensive strategy to a 1-3-1 zone was the key.
Prep held Lincoln Charter scoreless over the final 5:27 of the second quarter and continued with a mixture of 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone defenses into the third quarter.
Gould credited assistant coach Kent Phillips—a former head coach at Starmount– with the change in defensive strategy.
“He has been a great addition to us this year,” Gould said. “When you have another head coach on your team, sometimes he sees things that are different. For me, my nature is to always be dog-eat-dog, just grind them and kill them with all that. But when you take a bunch of pit bulls and teach them how to be disciplined and still bite, that’s what he’s done for us this year. He’s taught us to be pit bulls and still bite with that discipline.”
Lincoln Charter made 3 of 11 field goals in the second quarter (27.3 percent) and 5 of 15 (33.3 percent) in the third while Prep began to pull away.
“Our whole goal was to have them make shots in front of us,” Gould said. “Last year, I overcoached it. We have rules, and I always tell the guys that our rules will never get us beat. Last year, I changed our rules and I was asking them to do things they hadn’t done all season. This year, I said our rules weren’t going to get us beat. We told them that every possession, play it the right way. We didn’t need to gamble today. You’ve got to make people make shots in front of you, and that’s what we were trying to do. I think it was kind of demoralizing for them and we could see them getting a little rattled. You could kind of see their frustration mounting up and snowballing for them.”
Goodloe and Daivien Williamson, who finished with 17 points, sparked another 7-0 run early in the third quarter as the lead grew to 43-34.
“I definitely think we were frustrating them with our defense,” Williamson said. “They were having some trouble adjusting to it and we came out with a lot of intensity. We definitely tried to come here and make a statement because they took our dream from us last year. Now we’ve got a chance to take our dream back.”
Lincoln Charter never got closer than seven points in the fourth quarter as Prep continued to pull away. A steal and a layup by Chaz Gwyn (14 points) with 6:42left put the Phoenix up 49-36 and the rout was on from there. Prep led by as many as 21 points late in the fourth quarter, which turned into a free throw practice for the Phoenix during the final 3:25.
“There have been a lot of hard days since the end of last season,” Gould said. “And there will be some hard days this week leading up to Saturday. They know they aren’t done yet. What will go on the screensaver now? One word: finish. What difference does it make if you don’t finish the task? It’s great to celebrate this and have fun with it, but Monday, we’ll be back at it again to get ready for Pamlico.”
Lincoln Charter (26-5): London England 16, Kody Shubert 15, Knox 4, Johnson 8, Davis 3, Barnes 3, Haudek 4
Winston-Salem Prep (26-3): Justice Goodloe 18, Daivien Williamson 17, Chaz Gwyn 14, Zach Austin 7, K.J. Watson 8, Corey Rutherford 5