Curry spectacular in sectionals win

BETHEL, N.C. – Eastern Alamance avenged last year's tournament loss to North Pitt thanks to an unforgettable third quarter performance by JamesOn Curry.

The Eagles stunned the host Panthers, 69-65, Monday night to capture the sectional championship and advance to the 2-A regionals.

"I don't know if I can describe euphoria," Eastern head coach John Moon said after the big upset win, "but this is what it's got to feel like."

And the story once again was Curry, the star junior and future Tar Heel, who scored 33 points, with Carolina assistant Fred Quartlebaum in attendance.

"We played with a lot of heart and courage," he said afterwards in a scratchy voice. "I'm hoarse from trying to yell and lead."

From the opening tip, the Panthers went right to their big mismatch. Junior Marlon Jones, a 6-8 center, stood head and shoulders – literally – above the undersized Eagles frontcourt and scored his team's first seven points, as the Panthers opened up a 14-8 lead late in the first quarter before the Eagles hit a couple of threes to cut the deficit to 16-15 at the end of the quarter.

Curry struggled to evade the Panthers' defenders in the opening period, scoring only on an early three. The Panthers rotated different players on Curry all night, including UNC football signee Quinton Person, picking him up well before the halfcourt line.

"I thought I'd get more calls than that," Curry said of the physical defense, "but I played through it like any player.

"They busted my lip," he added, showing the cut under his lower lip. "I didn't like that."

And from that point on, Curry played with a noticeable attitude – showing fire in his eyes and a snarl on his face.

He drained two threes to start the second quarter and the two teams went back and forth, totaling seven lead changes, until the half ended with the Panthers leading 30-29.

Curry had 12 points at the break, and while those in attendance expected the prolific scorer to get hot at some point, no one could have expected the incredible act that was to follow.

"I told Quinton [at the end of the half], ‘Play man to-man' and when we came back they were in a man-to-man," Curry said. "That was a mistake."

Before all the Panthers fans could return to their seats from the concessions stand, Curry had lit up the home team for 16 straight, and unanswered, points.

In the first 2:59 of the third quarter, he put together a remarkable run – backdoor cut for a dunk, three pointer, baseline jumper, another backdoor dunk, two sets of free throws and another three pointer.

It was such a blur that the Panthers coach didn't get a chance to call a timeout.

"He's capable of taking over a game," Moon said of Curry. "He's capable of calling his teammates together and saying ‘Get on my back, here we go.'"

But there was some personal motivation for Curry, the Mebane native explained.

"I wanted it so bad," he said. "My grandma was sick and she hadn't come to any games. In the third quarter someone told me, ‘Hey, look, your grandma is here.' And I looked at her … and when I saw her, all my passion came in."

Moon said, "His family is his support system. They follow him everywhere and he's really close to his grandmother. She's been sick – in the hospital – and hasn't been able to get to our games. His family means everything to him."

by Dave Telep

A basket by teammate Bryan Burney at the 4:03 mark capped off the 18-0 Eagles run that put them ahead 47-30.

"Basketball is a game of runs," Curry said, "and we made ours."

But the Panthers were quick to respond with a run of their own – a 14-3 spurt over the remainder of the quarter.

Two three-point plays by Person, who finished with 15 points, fueled the run and got the animated crowd back in the game with a 50-44 score heading into the fourth quarter.

"I told them ‘Settle down, we've got enough poise to win the basketball game,'" Moon said.

A Panthers basket cut the lead to four, but Burney hit four straight free throws and the Eagles' 5-7 point guard Breon Lewis hit a clutch three to push the lead to 57-48 with 5:07 remaining.

The Eagles were not just holding their own - they were outdueling one of the best teams in the state - something even the state athletic association hadn't expected, according to Moon and Curry.

"We got a handout today from the state athletic association that said North Pitt was going for their third trip to the regionals – but they haven't won it yet," Moon said of a form that is actually filled out by the coaches at each school to distribute to the media.

Curry said, "We looked in that [sheet] and it said they've been to the regionals three times in a row. They hadn't made the regionals yet. They overlooked us like we weren't even here. So we came in with a chip on our shoulders and worked as hard as we could."

Why the Panthers had long since stopped using their size advantage was unclear, but the lightbulb suddenly went off and Jones (who finished with a team-high 19 points and 15 rebounds) returned to the court after spending much of the last two quarters on the bench. He scored eight of the Panthers next 12 points, while the Eagles ran clock and Curry sank four free throws to keep the Panthers at bay.

However, to win this game, they would need to overcome a couple of unlucky breaks.

Leading 64-58, the Eagles ran yet another backdoor play, but a Panthers defender stuck out his foot and kicked the pass – but the official didn't blow the whistle and a Jones five-footer cut the lead to four.

After a Lewis free throw, the Eagles extended their defense to the three-point line and swarmed a Panthers player who heaved a three-point shot from the baseline that somehow banked in, to cut the lead to 65-63 with 43.6 seconds left.

Burney hit two foul shots, though a follow by the Panthers narrowed the lead back to three at 68-65. The Panthers fouled Curry on the inbounds play with 8.6 seconds remaining.

Curry calmy hit the front end of the one-and-one, pumped his fist and the game was over.

His final stat line read 33 points, 8-of-17 from the floor, 5-of-10 on threes, 12-of-14 on free throws, seven rebounds, four assists, one steal and nine turnovers.

But he refused to take credit for the win.

"I didn't do it – we did it," he said. "We did it as a team. We let them know that we're small but we've got a lot of heart. We play like every game is our last – any game could be our last."

Moon noted the improvement the team has shown over the course of the season.

"It's a growing process and we've grown together," he said. "And we've won seven of our last eight. And we're here – the kids have done a great job and I'm just along for the ride."

The Eagles will make the more than two-hour drive back to Mebane for a day of school before returning tomorrow night for a 7 p.m. matchup with West Columbus at the Minges Coliseum on the campus of ECU.

"We're looking forward to it," Moon said. "We're going to drive that activity bus as fast as it'll go – there and back."

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