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Bethel wins state title

JACKSONVILLE – Sometimes 13 is a lucky number.

Such was the case for this year’s Bethel Assembly Christian Academy varsity boy’s basketball team.

The Eagles overcame 13 years of being close, but not quite getting there and garnered the North Carolina Christian Athletic Conference state championship 58-56 here Saturday afternoon.

Coming in as the number one seed, the Eagles were slight favorites over Riverside Christian Academy to take the state title.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned however, as head coach Joe Mizelle was sidelined due to illness and was unable to make the trip to coach his team. He called on longtime friend Jack Williford to step in his place and the veteran coach guided the Eagles through three games and was on the bench when they captured the state title.

“I was mighty proud of the boys,” Williford said. “I am glad Coach Mizelle had them prepared. My only goal was to get them to play with intensity and heart.”

Bethel did that from the opening tip where Jonathan Hoggard, one of the All-Tournament selections, grabbed two rebounds and recorded a block in the opening 60 seconds of play.

On the offensive end, Larry Caldwell and Josh Freeman hit a deuce and a three-pointer back-to-back as Bethel grabbed a 5-0 advantage.

The lead went to 13-2 before all was said and done as Caldwell scored twice while Freeman recorded a hoop and Frank Feher hit two free throws to give the Eagles a comfortable lead.

Riverside battled back in the closing minutes of the first quarter and cut the lead to 18-10 by the end of that period.

The second-seeded Riverside team actually was able to grab a 24-22 lead by the 3:27 mark of the third quarter, but Caldwell and Freeman hit back-to-back shots as the first half closed to give Bethel a 27-25 halftime lead.

Caldwell opened the third quarter with a three-pointer and Stephen Miller scored moments later, but Riverside again made the comeback effort, leading by one-point midway through the period.

The Eagles got consecutive hoops from Miller and Caldwell and led 40-34 with just over a minute to play in the period, but Riverside tied the score at 40-all just before the quarter ended.

The final period started well for the Eagles as Hoggard had two blocks and Miller one that each resulted in a Caldwell layup on the other end. Miller added another hoop as BCA built a 48-40 lead.

Riverside was not to be denied, however, as they scored the next nine point to edge into a 49-48 advantage. From there, the game went back-and-forth with neither team able to pull ahead by more than two points.

Caldwell hit a triple and was followed by a Feher free throw that edged Bethel into a 56-54 lead with 41 seconds to play.

After both teams missed the front end of 1-plus-1 situations, Bethel got the ball with 22.7 seconds to play. Freeman was fouled and calmly went to the line and hit both shots with 15.2 to go in the game as the Eagles edged ahead 57-54.

Riverside got within one with three seconds to play, but Freeman hit 1-of-2 at the other end with less than a second to play as Bethel sealed the victory.

“The guys played really hard,” Williford said. “I was proud of their effort.”

After the tournament was over, Caldwell was named Most Valuable Player and Freeman joined Hoggard on the All-Tournament team.

Caldwell led the offense with 24 points while Freeman contributed 15 points and Miller had eight. Rounding out the scoring were Hoggard (5), Feher (4) and Josh Askew (2).

The win not only gave Bethel a state title, but assured them of a top seed in this weekend’s two-state championship tournament with South Carolina. The Eagles will also make the trip to Tennessee for the national basketball tournament.