Heels guide Gaters to the gold

MARYVILLE, TN – Heading into the finals at the Junior Olympics, the North Carolina Gaters, who only carried seven players into the tournament, were visibly exhausted and in need of a boost.

Their opposition was the talented Tennessee Thunder, who featured four University of Tennessee signees and a home-crowd advantage in a crowded Heritage High gym.

Enter David Noel and Shawan Robinson.

The two future ACC players arrived just in time to give the Gaters needed fresh legs in the semifinals and final round.

Robinson, who drove himself all the way to Maryville, provided another ball handler and scorer on the wing, while Noel added size, strength, and a ton of athleticism to the Gaters' tired but talented ranks.

The added juice was just what the doctor ordered, as they took home the gold medal in a 102-97 victory over the Tennessee Thunder.

The Gaters jumped out to an early lead behind a scoring stretch led by Noel's 6 consecutive points: three on a long jumper and three on a vicious dunk and foul. The Thunder's Stanley Asumnu, an excellent athlete himself, answered with an equally-exclamatory dunk on a putback that closed the Gater lead to 11, but a Rashad McCants three spurred another run that stretched the lead to 55-38, capped by a spectacular Raymond Felton tip in.

Felton drove baseline, went up, and missed his lay-up attempt, but before the would-be defenders could even blink, he was up in the air on the other side of the bucket, caroming the rebound back into the bucket.

Felton, Noel, McCants and head UNC manager Eric Hoots.

With 2:06 remaining, the Thunder called a timeout, trailing 55-40. The game had the makings of an easy victory for North Carolina — but Tennessee was far from finished.

The Thunder came out hot after the break, and two long threes from John Winchester closed the gap to 9, which would remain the deficit at halftime: 57-48.

At the half, Felton and Noel had 12 points a piece, and McCants led all scorers with 15 at the break.

The second half started with a blitz from the Thunder. Stanley Asumnu threw down a wicked alley-oop off an inbounds play to kick off the scoring. Shortly after, a sweet CJ Watson pass found John Winchester for a lay-up to bring Tennessee within 2 at 57-55.

Felton answered with a quick three, followed by a McCants lay-up, to stretch the lead to seven. The Thunder closed the gap to two again at 62-60, but an acrobatic put-back from Noel put the Gaters ahead by four.

After a couple defensive stops, Watson stole the ball and slashed to the hoop ahead of the pack, tying the game at 66.

That's the closest the Thunder would get to taking the lead.

Felton, visibly upset with the wasted lead, kicked it into a higher gear and blew past defenders, scoring himself or dishing to teammates for open looks. Asumnu and Boomer Herndon, who played by far his best game of the tournament, finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds, kept the Tennessee squad close for a while, and three consecutive buckets from Asumnu put the Thunder back down one, 75-74.

Now it was McCants' time to shine.

The All-American took matters into his own hands, backing down weaker defenders for easy lay ups, and had a wicked no-look to Anthony King in the lane for an easy bucket. Add a Noel three, and the Gaters held a relatively comfortable lead at 89-83.

After that, it was a matter of holding off the Thunder's many attempts at the lead down the stretch. Noel and Felton sealed the deal for the Gaters, each converting steals into fast break dunks. The final horn sounded, and the Gaters came out on top.

Felton, who finished with 21 points, 12 assists, and 8 rebounds, was named the tournament MVP. McCants closed out a very strong tournament by posting 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists, while Noel added 19 points and 7 rebounds of his own.

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