Then there were two.
With three games left in the regular season for most of Robeson County’s prep basketball teams, Fairmont and Red Springs have emerged as 2A playoff locks and projected high seeds from our area fueled by consistency, depth and senior leadership.
The only other program on the bubble is Lumberton, but a three-game sweep to end conference play needed to qualify seems unlikely.
Backed by a veteran-heavy lineup and talent off the bench, the three-time defending conference champion Golden Tornadoes expected to be in this position despite losing 2013 area player of the year Kwinton Hinson. Point guard Jarrod Neal’s picked up where he left off as an all-county distributor with an area-high 7.8 assists per game while sophomore forward Alshaquan Williams has provided Michael Baker with a reliable option inside.
Hinson’s 21.8 points per game has been replaced by a collection of players including Malik Milton and Kashawn Leonard who have become productive scorers in transition.
But what’s happened at Red Springs, a team looking to get back to regional play for the first time in four years, is even more noteworthy.
Offseason transfer Jared Foster is the essential piece the Red Devils have missed in the backcourt, a player who’s ability to attack opens up back-door layups and open 3s. Outside of multiple losses to Fairmont, Red Springs has been Robeson County’s most consistent team since starting the season 0-3 and has won 15 of its last 18 contests.
6. South Robeson (3-15, 1-11) — Like St. Pauls, the Mustangs are a one-man show with opposing defenses spotlighting senior forward Reggie Scippio. One of Robeson County’s top individual scorers eclipsed the 30-point mark three times before Jan. 1, but has cooled off a bit during the second half of the season. Coach Quincy Johnson’s first season has been a forgettable one as Bryan Grice’s replacement, but depleted rosters and an overall lack of player development has become a trend for a program that last saw a winning campaign in 2008. South Robeson’s 59-58 victory over St. Pauls on Feb. 4 is its only win since the Shootout.
5. St. Pauls (3-16, 2-9) — Amid an eight-game losing streak that has wrapped up the Bulldogs’ third 15-loss season since 2008, standout guard Malik Livingston’s finally showing signs of fatigue as a senior due to shouldering the burden on both sides of the basketball. St. Pauls finished 16-9 last season and qualified for the state playoffs, but graduation losses — especially in the starting lineup — have proved too much to replace.
4. Purnell Swett (3-14, 1-7) — By coach Jeremy Sampson’s own admission, the Rams would have a better record this season if they would’ve been more formidable at the defensive end. Swett’s had little problems scoring led by Anthony Williamson and Kendrick Purdie, but one of the Southeastern Conference’s worst defensive teams can’t stop the opposition, especially in the paint. Swett has lost seven consecutive games and Monday’s 64-57 setback to Scotland may have been the most difficult to swallow.
3. Lumberton (10-10, 3-4) — Travis Suggs and Demetri Sheridan have emerged as go-to players on this year’s team, but unfortunately for the Pirates, Lumberton peaked before the start of the new year. A championship game win over Fairmont in the Shootout was the team’s best win to date and since that thriller, the Pirates are just 3-5 and have seen playoff chances slip away. Lumberton’s still mathematically in it, but must find a way to beat Scotland, Pinecrest and Swett down the stretch to lock in a berth. The last time the Pirates missed the playoffs was during the 2010-11 season under Ted Gaskins.
2. Red Springs (15-6, 10-2) — The Red Devils are one of two teams in the county with a legitimate shot at regional play thanks to skilled guards that can handle the basketball and an athletic front line. Glenn Patterson’s dealt with discipline problems early and midseason, but Red Springs hasn’t missed a beat during the Three Rivers Conference championship hunt. The Red Devils handled Lumberton — a squad that handled Fairmont twice — in both matchups, so the gaps between the top three spots in this poll are minimal.
1. Fairmont (15-5, 10-1) — Neal oils the machine, but Anthony Watson’s the much-needed muscle inside for the area’s best team after the Golden Tornadoes lost two-time all-county forward Charlton Townsend. Watson nearly averages a double-double and is second in the area in blocks per game behind Lumberton’s Xavier Grissett. If there’s a flaw the Golden Tornadoes can fix before the postseason, it’s at the charity stripe. Free throws ultimately cost Fairmont a Shootout championship in December and are always magnified down the stretch.
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.