CHARLOTTE – This offseason, news broke that Country Day star basketball player DeAngelo Epps was leaving the program after his junior year.
It was a shocking blow. Epps had been the big star of the Bucs, helping them win 19 games and end a decade-long drought with their first winning season since 2007-08.
Epps averaged nearly 19 points and over seven rebounds per game, but his eligibility was going to expire in the NCISAA’s 3A division, so he had to transfer to Carmel Christian, an already loaded team looking who is now nationally ranked and looking to defend its 2A title this year.
But where did that leave the Bucs?
“We were looking forward to having D-Lo back this year and when that didn’t happen, a lot of the guys seemed disappointed,” Country Day coach Dwayne Cherry said. “They felt like people wrote them off because they saw everything revolving around D-Lo. When he left, that was motivation. Although our best guy left, we’re still here and so they worked.
“All of this comes from them. This is one of the best pre-seasons we’ve ever this fall with the conditioning, the weight room and the on-the-court stuff. They put in the work and I think they see it paying off now.”
Senior Alex Tabor is one of the main beneficiaries. He’s responded with multiple 30-plus point outbursts this season, crossed the 1,000-point plateau and earned a prestigious academic scholarship to Southern Methodist University, where the sharpshooter will be a preferred walk-on.
“We definitely miss D-Lo,” Tabor said. “He is a great player and we obviously miss him and his scoring ability inside, but I think we played and gelled as a team and have created a winning culture here at Country Day, which I think is changing how it’s been in the past. It’s fun to watch the young guys really step up and work their way into their role.”
Without Epps, the Bucs have soared. They’ve gotten great seasons from junior Jackson Krisko and senior Richard Gillespie and others like sophomores Jimmy Mitchell and Cameron Ray and junior Julian Williams have been major contributors, but the consistency and winning mentality has mostly come from their three seniors: Tabor, point guard Rylan McLaurin and forward Myles Browner.
“They came up through middle school together and have been playing together for awhile,” Cherry said. “I like our backcourt. We have two seniors who have played awhile, so we definitely have experience.”
That experience was on prime display on Jan. 11.
The Bucs were squaring off against Providence Day, the conference bully that had won the CISAA every year since 2011-12. Even worse, during that stretch they had beaten the Bucs 14 consecutive times dating back to their run of dominance starting in 2012.
But, on this night, the Bucs were the better and more experienced team.
Tabor led Country Day’s charge with 16 points and five rebounds. He calmly sank all four of his free throw attempts and can score from everywhere as he made shots from outside the arc and on an array of acrobatic drives and pull-ups. Tabor, who set school records with nine made 3-pointers in a game and 98 for a season last year, is far more than just a shooter.
Browner was sensational, pouring in 14 points to go with eight rebounds while defending the lane and playing his usual solid defense.
And then there was McLaurin, the football star who made the improbable catch on a fourth down hail mary to give the Bucs their first football state title since 2010.
He’s having a similar impact on the basketball court. Against the Chargers, McLaurin had 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists but the senior is as heady and tough as anyone around.
“We feel comfortable at the end of the game with the ball in his hands,” Cherry said. “He’s been like that since his freshman year because as a ninth-grader he was starting for us at the point. He shoots the ball well, he sees the floor well, he doesn’t get rattled and he knocks down big free throws.”
In the end, the Bucs won going away overwhelming the Chargers for a 54-47 win.
It was a huge victory for the program, but justification to the players that this season is going to be special.
“I think we’re playing real well this season,” McLaurin said. “We’re going into every game expecting to win no matter who it is. We’ve pulled off a few upsets this year. We’re coming in with a lot of seniors this year and great leadership and coming in trying to win.”
Cherry knows the road is long. The Bucs haven’t won a conference title since in at least a decade, but this could be the year they break that streak, too.
“Any time you get in conference everybody is familiar with everybody and all of the records go out the window,” Cherry said. “Most of the coaches have been here for years. We all know each other, the players know each other and every game it seems like a battle.”
But the Bucs and their senior leaders are already battle tested and proving that they belong among the conference’s elites.
“We’re going for that conference championship,” Tabor said. “I don’t remember the last time we won a conference championship. I don’t know if we ever have – I guess we have some time – but we’re going for that. That’s our goal.”