CHARLOTTE – It’s hard to judge how a season worth of basketball will eventually unfold after five games, but Charlotte Latin coach Chris Berger got an assuring sign from his team during its 71-65 win over Hickory Grove at the Charlotte Hoops Challenge on Nov. 30 at Myers Park.
The Hawks are coming off a season in which they advanced to the NCISAA semifinals for the first time in a decade.
They return all five starters and several key reserves, so naturally expectations are high.
In the first half against Hickory Grove, the Hawks looked great opening up a 41-32 halftime advantage.
But, suddenly, the Hawks found themselves down after a 26-11 run turned a nine-point deficit into a 58-52 Hickory Grove lead early in the fourth quarter.
“That was a talented team. They are well-coached and they have some very talented players,” Berger said. “I was not pleased and my guys were not pleased in that third quarter because they came out and beat the snot out of us.”
But like the veteran team that they are, the Hawks held their ground, gathered themselves and outscored Hickory Grove 16-7 the rest of the way.
In the end, the non-conference win doesn’t mean much for the 5-0 Hawks, but the ramifications could be large for a team so much is expected from.
“I was pleased with the last four minutes of the game,” Berger said. “We executed, knocked down some free throws and did the things that we needed to do. We still lost the loose-ball war, and we don’t like that. We have a lot of work to do, but it’s nice to come over here and beat a really good team. That’s a good win for us because later on we’re going to play close games and now we know we can win them.”
The Hawks, who also beat South Meck the night before Hickory Grove, got two tremendous games from point guard RJ Johnson.
In the win over South Meck, the all-state senior poured in 27 points and added seven assists. In the win over Hickory Ridge, Johnson relentlessly attacked the basket, drawing the defenders to foul him. Johnson knocked down 17-of-22 free throws and scored 30 points to go with seven assists, rallying the team when they most needed it.
“I tell people this all the time. RJ is dynamite,” Berger said. “He’s mature, he’s a great young man and I haven’t been around someone who works as hard. He’s our conductor. He’s a great leader in and out of the locker room.”
But Berger has also pointed out seniors David Felkner, Grayson Clements, Brad Hull, Harry Grams and Bennett Smith have been role models for a team that is unlike many Berger has had since taking over before the 2009-10 season.
“Usually we have a freshman or two and some sophomores, but this is the oldest, most experienced team I may have had,” Berger said. “This year we have six seniors, six juniors and one sophomore. We have a veteran team. They’ve been in the locker room with me so they’ve heard me yell, they’ve heard me praise them and they know the system. It’s been nice to know that the only one freaking out is the coach, but I expect that from a mature team and I think that shows at times.”
While the Hawks don’t open conference play until early January, Berger thinks the early season opponents and playing four of the first five games on the road is going to help in the long run.
“I’m very excited for this group, but it doesn’t stop here. We get right back after it this week, so we have to keep improving and go from here,” Berger said. “Our association is so difficult, so there is no rest. Our conference is one of the toughest in the state so hopefully these games pay off in January and February. That’s when we want to be playing our best.”