FAYETTEVILLE — In a show of ultimate respect, Millbrook boys’ basketball coach Scott McInness had to draw something up to take away Panther Creek sophomore point guard Juan Munoz.
Andrew Evans drew the assignment to not let Munoz touch the ball. There were double-teams on inbound plays.
The plan worked.
Millbrook advanced to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A East final with an 82-74 win.
“(Munoz) is so good. For him to be as good as he is as a sophomore is just crazy,” McInness said. “I’ve seeen them play a couple of times and so much of what they do is in his hand so we wanted to take it out of his hands. We just kept trapping and trapping and trapping and making him pass out of it.”
The Wildcats will take on Apex (21-5) on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum.
With its court general getting limited action on offense, the turnovers piled up and the Catamounts sputtered. They had 16 first-half turnovers and ended the game with 25.
“It was this thing where Juan comes over and says ‘Coach, what can I do?’ At some level, if they’re going to put that much energy into taking him away, I didn’t have a good enough answer for him,” Panther Creek coach L.J. Hepp said.
Some of the effectiveness of the fourth-seeded Millbrook (24-4) press came from its depth. The Wildcats played 11 players in the first half and substituted liberally, in stark contrast to No. 9 Panther Creek (22-6) which goes just two deep on its bench.
“Not everyone’s able to play fast,” Millbrook’s Brandon Goldsmith said. “The fact that we’re deep helps us keep going and going.”
Even if Panther Creek, which trailed 41-30 at halftime, was worn down from the Wildcats’ fresh legs and pressure, they still hit enough 3-pointers (13-of-28) to stay in it by the end of the third quarter (down 59-46) and make it a six-point game with less than one minute to play.
Munoz ended the game with six points, nine rebounds and just one assist. His teammates gave a lift with 29 points from Gaqwez Hudson (6-of-11 on 3-point attempts) and 20 from Josh Maciejewski (6-of-10 from 3).
“We had guys who played great in the second half,” Hepp said.
Millbrook’s balanced effort was led by Chris Clemons (22 points), Robert Brown (13), Goldsmith (13), Evans (12) and Carlee Clemons (10).
In half-court instances, Panther Creek’s 1-3-1 zone forced long Millbrook jump shots in the first half but the Wildcats pounded it inside in the second half.
“Rob was doing a doing a great job sealing and finishing,” McInness said.
Panther Creek, which has nine seniors, had advanced in the playoffs after three straight heart-stopping wins: beating East Wake 82-75 in OT, Southeast Raleigh 59-53 and New Hanover 52-50.
“It’s a special (senior) group,” Hepp said. “When this senior class was a freshman class they didn’t win a JV game. So for them to have come from there to where they are now is just phenomenal. We made those 10 (postgame) minutes in the locker room all about those seniors.”
Millbrook defeated Apex in its Dec. 13 meeting earlier this season, 60-47.
But that came when Apex was going through a rocky 2-4 non-conference schedule. Since then, they’ve won 16 of 17.
McInness is certain to not rely on that game as a barometer for where the Cougars are now.
“That was a long time ago. I don’t even remember that game. That was this year?,” McInness said.
What did stick with McInness and his players was this: Apex knocked out Millbrook in last year’s playoffs, and the Wildcats have a chance to return the favor.
Blake: 919-460-2606; Twitter: @JMBpreps