MATTHEWS – Donovan Gregory had sort of gotten over the hump last season when Carmel Christian blew out Village Christian in the semifinals, but it wasn’t until his team pulled off a thrilling 65-64 win to repeat as champions on Feb. 23 that he could finally feel redemption.
The win last season led to the Cougars upsetting Gaston Day in double overtime to win their first state title in dramatic fashion.
But it still didn’t erase the pain from Gregory’s mind. He talked about it, although then sophomores Marten Maide and Myles Pierre probably have the same memory stored somewhere.
As a freshman at Northside Christian, Gregory had lost to Village Christian in the finals. Gregory, Maide and Pierre were on the 2016-17 Carmel Christian team that had lost to Village Christian in the finals that season.
This year, with the two postseason rivals hooking up once again, the game was set to be a classic.
And it was, truly becoming the showcase game it was supposed to and the perfect end to the Cougars season, where so much was expected of them.
“It’s different to do it like this because it’s harder to repeat,” said coach Joe Badgett. “Last year there wasn’t any pressure on us because everyone thought we’d lose to Gaston Day. This year, from Day 1 they expected us to win this game. But the kids battled, they hung in there and they pulled it out.”
Village Christian took the game’s biggest lead to end the first quarter when star point guard Travion McCray hit a three-quarter court shot that put the Knights up 20-13.
It was the worst-case scenario for the Cougars, as the crowd erupted. McCray was sensational all game. He led all scorers with 28 points, many coming on spectacular drives to the hoop.
But the veteran Cougar team that has played in multiple title games didn’t panic. They sprinted out to a 10-2 spurt to start the second quarter. When junior Myles Hunter splashed a 3-pointer, they had taken the lead 23-22.
From there, it was on. The game never shifted more than five points either way, but there were 15 lead changes including seven in the fourth quarter alone.
But in the end, it came down to Gregory, and he delivered on the biggest stage.
The Cougars trailed 64-63 with just over 20 seconds to go when they inbounded the ball. Gregory had a shot, but it missed and the ball – and the Cougar season – hung in the balance.
“I knew it was going to come down to who wanted it more,” Gregory said. “We were the better team, but we struggled at some points. Our defense translated into offense, and the best man was going to win the game.
“I got the ball and saw an opportunity to score. I picked it, up and we won the game.”
Gregory emerged from a scrum under the basket, rose and scored. McCray, the Village Christian hero had already made one long heave, had one final half-court shot that clanked off the backboard, giving the Cougars the perfect end, especially with the ball landing in Gregory’s hands.
“Personally, I feel like we deserve this,” he said. “I lost my first two state championships in ninth and 10th grade. I lost to Village Christian here, and I remember the pain I went through as a freshman with the seniors on that team. It’s been biting me apart ever since, so I was thinking about them today.”
Gregory led the Cougars with 22 points and six rebounds, and he connected on all 10 of his free throw attempts.
DeAngelo Epps, the Country Day transfer who fit into an already title-seeking team perfectly, scored 14 points and added six rebounds and three steals.
“It’s very special,” Epps said. “It was an emotional rollercoaster with the highs and the lows of the game. To come down for one shot to win you can’t ask for anything better.”
Hunter, the junior star to be, scored 14 points. He hit huge shots in the Cougars ‘semifinal win, as well and will be one of the centerpieces to next year’s team.
“Myles Hunter is probably one of the best scorers in the city,” Badgett said. “When he goes in, we tell him he has to shoot the ball because he can score at all three levels. I was talking to some college coaches today about him, and he’s very good. (Junior guard) Kenny (Gwynn) went in and played some minutes for us. He’s undersized, but he goes in the post and bangs and beats up but he never complains. He just wants to play.”
Badgett shared some hugs and tears with his guys, who had been through a lot this season. They had sky-high expectations with the talented roster loaded with five Division 1 recruits and at least three more guys who will play sign in the coming years. They dealt with a daunting national schedule, all of the expectations and came out 31-3 and state champions for the second straight season.
“I think it’s a fitting end for our season,” Badgett said. “These are great kids and great high school basketball players. You can’t write it up any better as a player. In the last one, I got the ball and made the shot that won the game. You can’t write it up like that. It’s great stuff.
“But, you know, I’m excited about the group we have coming back. We have some young guys, and they can flat play. I’m excited for getting them rolling.”