RED SPRINGS — Thursday was a basketball viewer’s dream, the NBA’s MVP race on display head-to-head between LeBron James and Kevin Durant at 8 followed by the NCAA’s fiercest rivalry on the hardwood as the nightcap.
The matinee precursor however was a you-had-to-be-there exclusive, Robeson County’s middle school championship games at Red Springs Junior High — two evenly-matched battles filled with standout individual performances and intense possessions in front of an overflow crowd.
“This is Duke-Carolina on a local level right here,” Fairmont second-year coach Julian Pipkin said after his team’s thrilling 59-56 win over Townsend capped a perfect season. “This group had the confidence to win the whole thing since the preseason and they went out and got the job done.”
Handling most of the work was eighth-grade guard Derrick Arnette, a future playmaker who will join a stable of emerging talent for Mike Baker at Fairmont High. Arnette poured in 33 points and hit 12 shots, none more important than his eventual game-winner on a three-point play with 41 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Arnette did a little bit of everything — running one-handers, pull-up jumpers and 23-foot 3’s — to offset Townsend’s Khalil Mitchell, who netted 19 points on a 6-of-7 effort from beyond the arc. Arnette was one of Fairmont’s final players to take home a piece of the net, climbing up the ladder above the rim just after Nalijha Pittman, a dominant forward who contributed 17 points and 11 rebounds.
Fairmont didn’t need triple-overtime or a buzzer-beater from Josh Wallace this time around to take out the Eagles in their third meeting in as many months, but didn’t grab its first lead of the contest until the three-minute mark of the third quarter.
The game featured six lead changes the rest of the way.
“We knew had to go all out,” Pittman said.
Added Arnette: “I just tried giving it all I had.”
The girls’ title game featuring back-to-back champion Littlefield and Taya Jones-driven adversary Red Springs had just as much drama down the stretch as the Imps escaped, 41-37.
Red Springs built a seven-point advantage with 1:33 remaining before London Thompson stole two passes and gathered in a defensive rebound leading to points at the other end and a one-point deficit. Jones responded with a hoop-and-arm to kill the run with 32 seconds left to help Red Springs survive the furious rally.
“I’ve told our girls every game, all season, that defense wins games,” Red Springs coach Kristina Lowe said. “That’s been our motto since the beginning. Our team had a lot of confidence coming in and it showed today.”
Most of the game, leading scorers Jones and Thompson matched each other point for point, exciting a crowd that arrived early and remained on its feet throughout. Thompson scored a team-high 23 points for the Hornets and shouldered the burden after Littlefield lost center Destiny Harden to her fifth foul with four minutes remaining.
“Losing one of our leaders like Destiny was difficult,” said Littlefield coach Julius Meekins. “We split with these girls in the regular season, so we knew we’d be in for a good game in the championship.”
The Hornets never found an answer for Jones who ignited the Imps with 26 points, five rebounds and seven steals.
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.
Championship box scores
Fairmont 59, Townsend 56
Townsend 9 13 15 19 — 56
Fairmont 6 10 26 17 — 59
TOWNSEND — Khalil Mitchell 19, Dedrich McEachin 12, Kyler Page 11, Wilkerson 6, Stanton 4, Bethea 4.
FAIRMONT — Derrick Arnette 33, Nalijha Pittman 17, M. Arnette 5, Wallace 2, K. Arnette 2.
3-Point Goals — TSD: Mitchell 6, Page. FMT: D. Arnette 3.
Records — Townsend 12-3; Fairmont 16-0.
Red Springs 41, Littlefield 37
Littlefield 11 6 6 14 — 37
Red Springs 10 9 9 13 — 41
LITTLEFIELD — London Thompson 23, Harden 8, McBride 2, Patterson 2, Maynor 1, Page 1.
RED SPRINGS — Taya Jones 26, Pecina 9, Ferguson 4, Cox 2.
Fouled Out — LTD: Harden.
Records — Red Springs 15-1; Littlefield 13-3.