SANFORD — The tournament final for the Yellow Jacket Invitational, hosted by Lee County High, had four teams – all ranked in the News & Observer top 15 – that have much to prove even as their seasons have raced out to eye-opening starts.
The No. 7 Apex girls wanted to prove they could repeat the tournament title, and they did with a 56-44 win against No. 9 Northwood.
For the host No. 5 Lee County boys, it was a chance to prove their gaudy win-loss record has been no product of chance. The Yellow Jackets came from behind to defeat No. 11 Cary 70-61.
Northwood (8-3) led 20-19 at halftime, but Apex (10-1) opened the third quarter with great efficiency. The Cougars scored on all but two of their possessions in the period, with point guard Cierra Brown running the point.
The 22-9 advantage in the quarter came in handy when Northwood, led by playmaking guard Shontai Totten (21 points), tried to rally.
“The third quarter is always our best quarter. We always come out running,” said Brown, who had six assists.
Apex’s size advantage helped beat the Chargers on the boards 35-21. Tournament MVP Mia Castagnero, a junior, had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
“The competition was higher this year. We wanted to prove our rankings,” Castagnero said. “It’s good to get three wins off the tournament.”
Tiffany Finley led Apex in points with 13, and Aliya Ruffin added 11 with nine rebounds.
Northwood’s only other losses were to No. 1 Chapel Hill and No. 12 Cardinal Gibbons. Apex’s only loss was to No. 6 Millbrook.
Apex’s Emily Sasser joined Ruffin and Castagnero on the all-tournament team, along with Chatham Central’s Ashley Hudson and Northwood’s Totten and Mariah Morrow.
Lee County (12-1) and Cary (7-4) were conference opponents for the last 12 seasons in the Tri-9 Conference, but Lee is now 3A and the Yellow Jackets have matched their highest win total of the past five seasons.
“We had a lot to prove. We hadn’t won our own tournament in a long time,” center DeWaun McEachin said. “I think we’re on the same page. Everybody is having fun together. We’re clicking and we’re going to try to keep it going as long as we can.”
Cary led 38-30 at halftime. The Imps could do little wrong in transition, but Lee was patient in pounding it down low to McEachin (24 points).
“They did such a good job of interior screening and post entries,” Cary coach Allan Gustafson said. “They’ve got some big guys and they pound it in there.”
With 6 minutes, 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, McEachin left the game with gash above his right eye. He had 22 points and 10 rebounds at the time, and Lee trailed by three.
Even without him for the next four minutes, Lee built a lead thanks to 15 points from Hunter Jackson and 14 from Jerry Pullum.
Point guard Tre’Von Watson had seven assists.
McEachin was named the tournament MVP. Joining him on the all-tournament team were Overhills’ Dexter McRae, Northwood’s Ti Pinnix, Cary’s Cory Gensler and C.J. Lyon and Lee’s Watson.
Gensler had 12 points in the tournament final and Lyon had a team-high 15.
Blake: 919-460-2606; Twitter: @JMBpreps