A 19-0 run in the fourth quarter helped Millbrook come from behind to defeat Seventy-First in the fourth round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state playoffs on Tuesday night.
Millbrook was trailing 59-50 in the fourth quarter when the Wildcats locked down defensively and finally got shots to fall. About four minutes later, Millbrook led Seventy-First 69-59, its largest lead of the game at that point. Once it claimed the lead, Millbrook never trailed again as it went on to win 80-71.
"We got good looks, we took good shots, we were just missing," Millbrook coach Chris Davis said of the first three quarters of the game. "As soon as we got the pace going and we made some shots, our energy got better and I thought the game changed."
The momentum shifted in the fourth quarter when senior Collin Lewis took a charge then drilled a 3-pointer on the ensuing offensive possession to cut Seventy-First's lead to 59-56 with 5:06 left in the game.
"It was very big. In my mind, I feel like that gave us the energy that we needed to make our run in the fourth quarter," Lewis said. "I just take pride in defense. Defense turns into offense, and that's basically what it was there."
After a Seventy-First timeout, and with Seventy-First leading 59-58, Phillip Burwell got another defensive stop for Millbrook by forcing a five-second violation. Once the violation was called, the official called a technical foul on the Seventy-First player, giving Millbrook two free throws and the ball.
"I was trying to get five-second calls the whole game and I finally got one, then he was mad and baited him into getting a tech by pushing me," Burwell said. "I sold it a little bit, but I got it and I had to knock down the free throws. It's only right."
Burwell hit both free throws to give Millbrook a 60-59 lead with 3:54 left in the game – the first lead since early in the first quarter for Millbrook. The senior then went on a run of his own, splitting a pair of free throws and connecting on an and-one on a drive to the basket, which pushed Millbrook's lead to 64-59.
"I said, 'It's game time,' in my head. I was like, 'I know we're not going to lose it, we've got to do what we've got to do to win the game,'" said Burwell. "I just knew we were going to win once we got that lead."
Millbrook says there was never any doubt that it could come back, but Seventy-First controlled momentum for most of the game.
The Falcons got eight points from Xzavier Howard and seven points from Demauriea Nickelson as they took a 22-18 lead into the second quarter. Sam Hood kept Millbrook in the game in the first quarter with eight points of his own, but the Wildcats struggled from the floor and from the free throw line.
Seventy-First maintained its lead in the second quarter. Behind an eight-point quarter from Brion McLaurin, the Falcons took a 41-36 lead into halftime.
"We're not ever going to quit, so if we're down 10 with a minute to go, we think we can come back in the game. I think for the crowd and everyone else, they were a little antsy, but we got some stops, we played super hard and we made some baskets when we had a chance," Davis said.
Millbrook kept fighting back. Burwell scored eight points in the third quarter as Millbrook chipped away, down 52-50 going into the fourth quarter.
Seventy-First started the fourth quarter on a 7-0 run, which took a lot of the energy out of the gym for Millbrook, but defensive plays from Lewis and Burwell helped spark the 19-0 run at that point as Millbrook pulled ahead and never trailed again.
"We work on this stuff at practice all the time, we're always down and we always have to come back. I knew we were going to find a way to come back because we didn't want to lose, we didn't want to play the last game of our season at our home," Burwell said.
Millbrook will get to play at least one more game. The Wildcats will face 3-seed South Central in the eastern regional championship on Saturday. Both teams have been ranked No. 1 in the HighSchoolOT.com Top 25 Poll at different points this season and neither team has been ranked lower than second in the poll.
"We are very excited and very proud to have gotten to a place where we get a chance to play against who everyone says is the best team in the state. We feel like we're not bad, we look forward to preparing ... we're one of four teams left in the state and we're really proud of that," Davis said.
Despite being the higher seed, Davis said he doesn't think Millbrook will enter the regional final as the favorite.
"We're definitely the underdog, 100 percent. Everyone talks about all the great players they have, and they have a phenomenal team, we're just little ole Millbrook so we'll just try to get our guys together and hope we've got enough energy to fight with a great team like that," he said.
The time and location of Saturday's regional championship has not yet been announced by the NCHSAA. It will either be played at Fayetteville State's Capel Arena or East Carolina's Minges Coliseum in Greenville.