By Pete Zamplas
Hendersonville Bearcats won their third consecutive Mountain Six tournament title last week, thumping Smoky Mountain 64-49 in the title game as a tune-up for state playoffs.
West Henderson Falcons were snubbed by the selection process for 3A schools. The Western Mountain Athletic Conference’s fifth seed from the regular season beat fourth seed North Buncombe to open the WMAC tourney. But that was not enough. Only the top four WMAC seeds made it in.
Hendersonville (21-5) is seeded seventh in the 2A West Region. The Bearcats hosted no. 26 Newton-Conover Tuesday and if they won as expected, they are home again this Thursday/today, March 27. The state tourney continues Saturday, then next Tuesday.
The Cats are riding strong momentum. They won on Feb. 19 in the M6 tourney held at East Henderson, while second-seeded Brevard edged top seed Franklin in the girls’ finals.
The WMAC tourney was also in Henderson County, at North Henderson, and concluded Friday. Reynolds males and North Buncombe females won the titles.
West Stars: Bryson, Lyda
All-time Falcon leading scorer Ben Bryson poured in 38 points as West won its opener by nine, at 67-58 over fourth seed North Buncombe, for its fourth win in a row in WMAC play. West (11-13; 7-9 WMAC) surged to the conference’s midpoint, of fifth among nine teams.
The Falcons then fell to top seed ACR by 68-60 in a semifinal Feb. 19. West led by four at 17-13 after the first period, and rallied at the end to close the gap. The senior Falcon backcourt was often on fire. Josh Lyda was hot shooting early, and Ben Bryson down the stretch.
Lyda scored 21. Bryson scored 19. He is the all-time leading Falcon hoops scorer, surpassing his father Joey Bryson. The Rockets were also paced by guards, as Tyler Parton scored 22 and Jakari Thompson 19.
Reynolds won the WMAC regular season at 13-3, then the tournament. But West dealt ACR one of its merely three WMAC defeats, by 59-54 a week before they clashed in the tourney.
Tourney host team North Henderson (11-15; 5-11 WMAC), the eighth seed, won a “play-in” game over ninth-seeded Enka by 66-57. Down one at the half and after three, the Knights outscored the Jets by ten (21-11), to prevail.
Next, they were ACR’s first tourney victim — by a 62-51 count. Jack Marsh led NHHS with 11 points. The 6-4 junior is among four Knights who averaged at least eight points per contest in 2019-20. Sole senior Corey Hinson (13 ppg., 4.1 assists) led the way. Sophomore Brayden Corn and 6-2 junior Zachariah McDaniel averaged 10 points each, and “Z” added 6.6 boards.
Lady Knights (8-17; 5-11), the seventh seed, fell 74-42 to second-seeded Asheville in an M6 opener. Lexie Gunter led North, with 21 points. The ninth-grade rising star averaged 10.3 points and 6.6 boards.
Next up for some NC hoops senior stars are the two Blue-White All-Star Basketball Games — on Saturday, March 21 at Pisgah. Zach Wilkins, the Lady Knights’ head coach, leads the female Blue squad. The team includes top-scoring Lady Knights Abby Hedgepeth (13.5), a 5-10 forward, and guard Ashley Patton (12.8). The girls’ game starts at 6 p.m., followed by boy all-stars’ contest.
West Lady Falcons (3-21; 1-15) won a play-in contest 47-46 over TCR, then fell to top seed Enka 78-52.
East Lady Eagles (6-17; 1-9), who won 20 games a season ago, dropped a 57-29 game to Pisgah in the M6 tourney. This was after HHS Lady Bearcats (8-15; 2-8) beat East 57-39 at home Feb. 11, to finish fifth. HHS then lost to Smoky Mountain 60-46 in the tourney.
East Eagles (5-18; 0-10) was eliminated in the tourney by Pisgah, by 54-42.
Guardians of Cat Galaxy
The Bearcats have won the M6 tourney in all three of their seasons newly in the revamped, now all-2A Mountain Six Conference. It was formerly the WNCAC, and HHS replaced three schools (West, North Henderson, Tuscola) that moved up to the all-3A WMAC.
Hendersonville’s M6 tourney wins have been ignited by Carson Redden as a starting guard. Now a junior, he is the elder statesman of three guards who similarly have first started on varsity as freshmen.
Redden said after being named M6 tourney MVP that he wants to “keep it going,” with a deep playoff run by the Cats. Though HHS has merely two seniors, this season could prove better than next due to playoff matchups.
Hendersonville broke open the title game, in an impressive second half. Richmond Felton’s put-in then Redden’s short jumper opened up a 13-point lead, at 45-32.
The Bearcats were the number one seed, after winning the regular season with an 8-2 mark. HHS beat East (5-17; 0-10) to conclude the regular season. HHS held off fourth seed Franklin 58-54 in an M6 semifinal, then blew out Smoky.
All three HHS guards made the all-tourney team — junior Redden, sophomore Dwight Canady, and freshman Keenan Wilkins. They are Guardians of the Cat Galaxy.
In the finals, swift Wilkins scored 17 points, and made five of the team’s whopping 15 steals.
Redden had 13 points, five assists, and four rebounds. Canady also scored 13. He made seven rebounds. Against Franklin, Canady and Wilkins each scored 18 and Redden added 13 points.
Entering playoffs, their averages are: Canady (22.3 ppg., 6.5 reb., 2.4 steals, 3 assists), Wilkins (18 ppg., 3 st.) and Redden (10.8 ppg., 5.3 assists, 4 steals, 6 reb.).
“Carson runs the team,” veteran head coach Marvin Featherstone said. “Keenan is deadly shooting outside. And Dwight scores well both inside and outside.”
HHS is apt to go as far as its bigger men can compliment the explosive guards. The Cats have more girth than height up front. Several forwards have taken turns stepping up in games, Featherstone said, with standout post player Gavin Strickland out a month and half. He is one of the two seniors. The 6 feet 4 Strickland (7.1 reb., 9.2 ppg.) is the most proven HHS force inside. He returned for the M6 tourney, playing sparingly.
Alex Lemmens had a double-double versus Smoky, with ten points and ten rebounds. The 6-3 junior, a star sure-handed football tight end, averages 5.5 rebounds and six points as a critical hoops cog. QB Joel Christner (4.5 ppg., 3 reb.) also contributes well up front.
Rugged, stocky Felton is the Cats’ other hoops senior. He said that as a football linebacker and fullback, “I hit people for a living.” He is hard-nosed on the hardcourt as well. He said it felt good to get back at the Mustangs, who beat HHS handedly on the gridiron in this past fall.
Felton credits team training, fitness and thus endurance for helping strong finishes to game. He said, “We run teams out of the gym.”