Robeson County’s most talented boys basketball team got over the proverbial hump last week and any remaining wins will be icing on the cake.
But don’t tell that to Fairmont’s five seniors.
Luke Hunt, Charlton Townsend, Jackie Oxendine, JaQuan McRae and Kevin Frierson have helped reignite Fairmont hoops since 2010 and bring light to a community marred by recent tragedy and disappointment. The closely-knit group is on a mission to bring a state championship back to a 2A program on the cusp of glory, just two victories shy of a spot in Chapel Hill.
You can’t teach playoff experience and the Golden Tornadoes have it. Local fans only have to venture back two years to remember the last time a veteran-led team from Robeson County reached Fayetteville. Like Red Springs in 2011, Fairmont’s roster has suffered through late-game losses and overcame double-digit deficits in the postseason. They’ve been up-and-down against superior teams and bludgeoned the less talented.
Combined with leadership, the mix of experience gives the Golden Tornadoes a legitimate chance to make noise inside the Crown Arena.
Head coach Michael Baker often utilizes his veterans in key situations, but says he’ll play no favorites this week. Players have accepted their roles — heavy or not — this season. Sophomore Kwinton Hinson attacks often, Jarrod Neal distributes and Shemar Barfield scores in spurts when his chief focus isn’t bottling up the opposition’s best player.
McRae and Frierson get limited minutes, but their time on the court is vital to Fairmont’s success.
“JaQuan has really improved over the course of the season,” Baker said. “Kevin’s size is something we need in the post. He didn’t play much against Clinton, but he made an impact when he did.”
Oxendine, who isn’t leaned on to score, provides just enough offense to keep defenses honest. He’s the team’s leading 3-pointer shooter, hitting 46 percent of them, and a couple of long-range jumpers could provide the difference against Northside.
“It’s important for our players to know what we expect from them,” Baker said. “If you’re in the game to rebound, then rebound. If you’re on the floor to score, then score. We’ve done a better job of understanding that in the playoffs.”
Hunt is coming off arguably the best game of his career, a 20-point and four-block effort against Clinton. The all-county defensive end plays just as hard on the court as his does on the field, trading sweat down low with players often 3-4 inches taller.
“I just try to play hard every minute I’m out there,” Hunt said. “You can’t win if you don’t play hard.”
Then there’s Townsend, a burly 265-pounder who many think peaked during his all-county sophomore season. A foot injury sidelined him more than half of his final campaign, but the powerful rebounder has caught fire down the stretch. He’s proved critics wrong with the same level of tenacity he played with during the Golden Tornadoes’ ascension to No. 1.
This year’s senior class can seal a noteworthy legacy in Fairmont lore with two wins in Fayetteville this week, but three conference titles, a Shootout crown and a Elite Eight appearance is already a respectable finish.