DURHAM — Apex advanced to the quarterfinals of the state 4A boys basketball tournament for the first time in six years, beating No. 2 seed Northern 64-63 thanks to a last-second jump shot from senior Majid Raji.
It was an improbable play. Ricky Council II gave Northern a 63-62 lead when scored a fast break bucket with 16 seconds to play, and without timeouts, the Cougars put the ball in senior T.J. Evans’ hands.
Evans eventually broke for the lane but lost control of the ball as the clock wound down. Somehow, the ball landed in Raji's hands on the right baseline. He quickly fired a 12-foot jumper that swished through the hoop, stunning the Knight crowd and sending Apex (20-7) to the East regional semifinals against Clayton.
“I think it was just meant to be, honestly,” Raji said. “We've been through so much all season. We've been through injuries, but in the end, I think it was just meant to be.”
Northern coach Ronnie Russell had another explanation after his Knights (26-3) did everything right on defense on the final play.
“I guess there's a little luck involved, you know?” Russell said with a smirk. “… That was unfortunate, but things happen like that during a game.”
Raji scored a season-high 20 points and led a third-quarter comeback with three 3-pointers. The Cougars trailed 27-21 after a sloppy first half when they shot 30.8 percent from the floor and made only one of 10 3s.
Apex, though, ran off the first eight points of the third quarter, with Raji getting five.
“I looked up in the third quarter and said, ‘I don't want this to be my last high school game,’ ” Raji said. “I said, ‘I need to do something to help my team.’ My teammates found me the ball, and I guess it was just falling. Thank God it was falling.”
Northern surged back to a 40-37 lead before Raji, Malik Williams and Evans hit 3-pointers on the Cougars' final three possessions as Apex took a 46-42 edge into the fourth.
“They didn't shoot the ball that well the first half, but the second half, they opened up and started shooting better,” Russell said. “We didn't defend it well.”
Ian Boyd gave Apex a 58-53 lead with 3:36 to play with a driving basket, but the Knights rallied again, with senior Jaquan Harris draining a 3 with 58 seconds left to put Northern up 61-60.
Raji's follow shot put the Cougars up 62-61 with 24 seconds left, but Council (23 points) sped downcourt for a layup and a short-lived Northern lead.
“An amazing finish,” Apex coach David Neal said. “We've had a third-round hump the last two years, and it's pretty ironic sometimes how it works out. (Raji) made all the shots for us, and he wasn't here the last two years for those losses in the third round. He was fantastic.”