Rutherfordton – Hendersonville lost the basketball battle for the third time versus new arch-rival R-S Central. Last Friday the end score was 68-67, but their ferocious comeback showed that HHS can win the war if the two elite squads meet in 2A playoffs.
These teams are the cream of the newly-formed Mountain Foothills Seven. They were ranked in the top two among 2A teams state-wide for most of this season. HHS was atop rankings – until they lost to R-S a second time. The Bearcats entered Friday ranked second behind R-S (Rutherfordton-Spindale).
The Hilltoppers (24-2) won their 14th game in a row. They were 12-0 in league regular season games. HHS (24-3) was 10-2. All three Bearcat boys’ defeats so far in 2021-22 were narrow losses to R-S — by 79-78, 81-75 in overtime, and 68-67.
That first loss was a bizarre one at home. An astounding officials’ technical foul call on an HHS player was for coming onto the court. That was right after Keenan Wilkins sank apparent winning free throws. It was ruled a split second before the final buzzer sounded. R-S sank two free throws to win by a point. In contrast, R-S’ win Friday held up as its students flooded the court a bit early.
R-S only lost to Reynolds (by 20) and Enka (by 10) — both in December. HHS walloped MAC champ Reynolds by 22 to win a holiday tourney Dec. 29.
Hendersonville wins by a larger average margin – 25 (at 86-61) versus 19 (77-58) for R-S in 2021-22. HHS surpassed 100 points six times, to none for R-S.
Bearcat fans jammed the gym’s visitor’s side and cheered the comeback loudly. A metal detector screened fans – as if a rumble was anticipated.
Star guards Dwight Canady (27.5 ppg.), a senior, and junior Wilkins (27 ppg.) combine for nearly two-thirds of Bearcat points. They carried 72 percent of the scoring load Friday. Canady scored 25 and Wilkins 23.
The Bearcat Drive-in Duo repeatedly drove all of the way to the basket for lay-ups Friday. They routinely dodged past the R-S Goliath — 6-foot-9, 220-pound freshman center Zymicah Wilkins. They put up acrobatic shots before he could block them.
“We made the big man try to guard us,” Canady said. We refer to Zymicah as Z-Wilkins, and Keenan Wilkins of HHS as K-Wilkins to distinguish them. Z-Wilkins avoided foul trouble. But he lost grabs low to the ground for loose balls.
HHS head coach Marvin Featherstone said, “I told the guys to get after him (Z-Wilkins). They played their butts off, and nearly pulled it off.” He said R-S “made plays when they had to” in the end.
The away game was paused to honor Canady for surpassing 2,000 career points. Canady entered state playoffs with 2,012 points. On average, it would take him three playoff games to score the 64 points he needs to become the highest scoring boys player in Henderson County public high school history. Austin Nelson set the record of 2,075 points in 2017, as a North Henderson senior center.
Wild Point Swings
The tremendous HHS second-half rally gives Bearcat Nation hope in case of a rematch. Each side had a dominating period. The Hilltoppers led merely 13-10 after the opening period.
But they outscored HHS 24-10 in the second period, to lead 37-20 at halftime. R-S was sharp with three-pointers, and expanded its lead to 22 early in the third. R-S seemed to stand for “Rapid Shooting.”
But HHS head coach Marvin Featherstone unleashed his fierce full-court press. It worked. The pressured Hilltoppers often crumbled and tossed quick, errant passes into Bearcat hands. HHS was quicker getting to loose balls, and hotter shooting.
In result the Bearcats reeled off a 22-9 run to open the third period. That slashed the lead to four, at 46-42. A 5-2 R-S counter spurt closed the third with an R-S lead of seven at 51-44. HHS scored four more points in the third than in the first two periods combined.
“They jumped on us for a while,” senior point guard Braxton Crocker (13.1 ppg.) told the Tribune. But R-S withstood that torrential Bearcat rally. Crocker, who scored 18 points, steadied his crew in see-sawing final minutes.
Hendersonville scored the first six points of the final period, to pull to 51-50. Canady’s three-pointer tied it at 53. In a swap of mini-spurts, R-S scored the next five points then HHS scored seven in a row.
HHS snatched its first lead at 62-60, as Wilkins drove in with three minutes to play. That followed his three-pointer and a bucket by Eric Rasheed.
Canady dribbled the length of the court to score for a 67-66 lead, with a half-minute to go.
But lanky Junior Montgomery of R-S put in the game winner with 5.6 seconds left, after rebounding a missed baseline three-pointer. HHS called a timeout after its inbounds pass, to advance the ball to a mid-court sideline with two seconds left.
That set up the play of the game on the in-bounds pass. Keenan Wilkins sped into open space, with no one in front. Z-Wilkins told the Tribune he saw Keenan running down the far side. He reached up and stole the pass. R-S fans went wild. Goliath dribbled in for a dunk after the buzzer that did not count. An earlier jam counted.
Z-Wilkins (15.1 ppg.) led R-S with 20 points. He hit a key shot from the top of the key. He averages 9.5 rebounds (six on defense) and 1.8 blocks. The last-second steal was his biggest heroic play.
He is the wild card in the matchup. The Hilltoppers are aptly named, with their height edge. Three R-S seniors each contributed ten points Friday — 6-3 guard Tyrese Miller (team-best 15.8 ppg.), burly 6-5 Keion Littlejohn (11 ppg.) and 6-4 Montgomery (10.3 ppg.). Littlejohn matches well with husky 6-4 sophomore Bearcat center C.J. Landrum. HHS backup Malachi Simpson (10.3 ppg.) is 6-4. Both average eight rebounds.
Hendersonville opened the tourney at home by poking Polk 104-49. HHS put the artillery to Patton by 72-63 in a semifinal at R-S.
State playoffs opened Tuesday. Top seed R-S hosted Owen. HHS is seeded 11th — lower than all conference champs. HHS welcomed Lincolnton.
Pacing Buncombe teams, A.C. Reynolds boys are seeded second in 4A and Lady Rockets are third.