WHEN MICHAEL Knox approached the free-throw line late in C.A. Johnson’s Class A state championship game against Whale Branch, one man standing deep into the Carolina Life Arena stands could relate to the pressure.
Twenty-five years earlier, across the arena parking lot in Carolina Coliseum, Keith Holloway sank two free throws that helped push C.A. Johnson to its last state title. This time, Knox made one with 45 seconds remaining and two more with 9 seconds to go to secure another championship.
“I knew what he was going through,” Holloway said afterward.
What Knox and his teammates went through Saturday was eerily similar to the experience of the 1989 championship club, from falling deep into an early hole to using a 1-3-1 trapping zone defense to crawling out of it.
Both teams also fought against great odds to win.
“We’ve had guys suspended. We’ve lost guys,” said C.A. Johnson coach Daryl Jarvis, minutes after his team’s 71-64 overtime victory. “We’ve been in games where we had all starters in foul trouble. And we just keep fighting hard. Kept fighting hard.”
Several members of the ’89 team in attendance – including Holloway, Nate Jacobs, Fred Moore and coach Tim Gates – understood. That team went 13-7 during the regular season, then swept through the playoffs to the championship. The current club was a less-than-sterling 14-9 following the regular season.
Unlike that ’89 team with a smattering of seniors, this club had eight seniors, many of whom had played together since middle school. Those eight played 167 of the game’s 180 minutes Saturday, scored all but five of the team’s points and grabbed all but two of its 31 rebounds.
“I just love these guys,” Jarvis said before the game. “I’m going to miss all of them, especially these eight seniors. It’s going to be emotional.”
Periodically throughout the week preceding the game, Jarvis used the ’89 championship game as a talking point with the team. He told them winning a championship went beyond the players and coaches and into the C.A. Johnson community.
“We talked about the pride in the community and trying to rebuild it,” Jarvis said. “I told them since they’ve been 10th graders, they have the opportunity to bring that pride and tradition back. We wanted to make history, again.”
Just before the team departed the locker room to begin pregame warmups, it huddled, prayed, then put their hands into the huddle and shouted: “One! Two! Three! History!”
Whale Branch, attempting to win a state championship game it lost the previous season, countered C.A. Johnson’s full-court pressure by running waves of players in and out of the game. It seemed to work as Jarvis was forced to call one timeout with his team trailing by 5 points in the first quarter, another when down by 8 in the second, and a third when Whale Branch stretched the lead to 18 before halftime.
Then, just as the ’89 team gained momentum at the end of the first half in its championship win against Riverside, C.A. Johnson’s engine got charged when it cut the halftime deficit to 9.
For the second half, Jarvis heeded the advice of his assistant coaches.
“I hate the 1-3-1 in half court,” Jarvis said. “My coaches kept saying, just try it, just try it. It was the difference.”
Whale Branch, which scored 20 points in the first quarter and 21 in the second, managed 23 points against the 1-3-1 over the final two quarters and overtime.
Similarly, the ’89 club switched to the 1-3-1 in the second half, confused Riverside’s offense and coasted to an 81-67 victory.
Just as guard Carey Rich took the lead in the ’89 team’s second-half run and finished with 30 points, Knox was C.A. Johnson’s guy on Saturday. He finished with 23 points, nine rebounds and seven steals.
It also was Knox who got up next to his coach on the sideline when the Green Hornets trailed by 18 points in the second quarter.
“Coach, we’re going to keep fighting,” Jarvis recalled Knox saying. “We’ll be all right.”
Afterward, Knox proved to be the team spokesman in lending perspective to the championship.
“It means a lot, not only for me and my team, but for our community,” he said. “They’ve been behind us and supporting us. ... On the 25th anniversary, we showed that not only the class of ’89 could do it, but we could do it, also.”
Knox and his teammates then swapped out their week-old “Region Champions” warm-up jerseys for new “State Champions” T-shirts. The celebration moved upstairs to a C.A. Johnson suite.
In the concourse outside the suite, Jarvis met up with Gates, the coach from the ’89 championship team. C.A. Johnson had waited 25 years for this embrace of championship coaches.