After the horn sounded, Kinston players celebrated as if they'd captured the national championship. Any why not? Moments earlier they'd won a thrilling 67-64 game over rival power Dudley and a spot in the regional championship.
Then, something big time happened. Reggie Bullock, arguably the state's premier junior, gathered his emotions and made a break to find P.J. Hairston, one of the highest-profile sophomores in the entire south. Hairston was on the ground having lost the ball at midcourt to end the game.
Bullock, a North Carolina commitment, found his friend and helped pick him up off the floor. See, this game was about pride, respect and competition. Both teams, especially their stars, understood the moment.
"Man, he's real good," Bullock said of Hairston, on his way to the press conference. "Real good."
Dudley's Hairston, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, finished the game with 29 points on 11-of-24 from the field. He was responsible for the game's signature stretch run. In the first quarter, Hairston and Bullock combined to shoot 0-for-11. In a game of this magnitude, with Roy Williams courtside, neither looked particularly comfortable … until the second quarter.
Trailing by four, Hairston erupted. He scored 20 of Kinston's 25 points the quarter before halftime. Truth be told, he didn't even get hot until midway through the second period. Showcasing a complete game, Hairston dove to the post, slipped through the lane for a runner, bottomed deep 3s and changed speeds to get himself looks. As the quarter ended, Hairston rose over a crowd and tip dunked a teammates miss seemingly at the buzzer. He got fouled, made his free throws and walked off the floor having given the 6,500 in attendance a show.
Kinston was in trouble and on the ropes. Wells Gulledge's star was held to four points. Something had to give. Fortunately, like Hairston before, Bullock stepped up and seized his share of the moment.
With his competitive fire stoked, Bullock went to work in the third quarter and helped the Vikings reel the Panthers back in. Bullock got fouled on a deep 3-pointer and made all the free throws to tie the game at 60 with 2:39 remaining.
Now it was Hairston's turn. He snuck through traffic and scored off an inbounds play. On the next possession, he dimed freshman Reggie Dillard in transition and Dudley led by four.
Almost on command, Bullock answered with a deep three of his own. Half a minute later, Bullock's basketball IQ and Dori Hines guts as a passer led to a slick back door cut from Bullock that resulted in the game-winner with 31 seconds left.
"We have a great program," Dudley's David Price said. "They have a great program. It is frustrating when you lose one like we did tonight, but like I said, life goes on and I can say I don't have any complaints about my kids."
No one in the building could lodge a complaint. Both coaches and the participants knew they'd combined to play a special game. One team advanced, the other deemed a hard luck loser. Regardless, to a man, each felt as if it had played a significant part in a classic game.
Kinston and Dudley are two of the state's most storied and prized programs. They have combined to win seven of the last nine eastern 3-A championships. Jerry Stackhouse played for Kinston, Brendan Haywood suited up for Dudley. The programs produce college players as well as pros. Next year they'll go their separate ways and join different classes within the state. Gulledge said after the game that he's committed to keeping the rivalry alive.
Bullock and Hairston each played 30 minutes Friday night. They combined to score 57 points; Bullock with 28, Hairston 29. While they put on a magnificent show, each had assistance. Dillard, a freshman, played strong on the defensive side of the floor and scored 16 points. Kinston bigs Victor Holloway and Dallas Best combined for 28 points and 17 rebounds. Since both teams were essentially mirror images, Holloway and Best's work inside was significant.
After Dudley's press conference ended, Kinston players were gathered in the hallway waiting their turn in front of the media. A red-eyed, still emotional Hairston emerged from the media room. Once again there to greet him was Bullock. Another round of hugs and handshakes ensued and the opposing coaches, again, congratulated each other. Dudley's Price was nearly speechless. There wasn't much to say. His team and his star just lost the most difficult game of their careers. Luckily for Dudley, the kids from Kinston were there to extend a hand, offer a hug and together root for a rematch.
Jonathan Frye, SG, Northern Guilford: Since February, he's stepped his game up. Frye's late season surge, combined with sophomore guard Michael Neal's scoring ability (Neal had 20 points) has fueled NG's run. Frye's game is maturing. A good athlete, he's rebounding his position while stroking jumpers. He had 12 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. More important than the numbers is the fact that Frye know sees himself as a big time player and his confidence is boiling over into his team.
Bertie center Travis Bond is a road grader. The UNC football signee goes 6-7 and 315+. Bertie wasn't afraid to toss it to him and he emptied the tank. Something tells me he's going to meet Roger Godell one day. … Michael Neal's ability to find the bottom of the net was clutch for NG.