By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
Winning 400 games was almost easy compared with closing out No. 401 for Hickory High head coach Nick Cannone.
Fortunately, he had a heavenly helping hand from his father, “Grassy.”
“I carry his (prayer) card all the time, and I miss him dearly. I know he would’ve enjoyed this. Oh, gosh!” gushed Cannone regarding his deceased dad, Nick.
Marcus Sonoga’s leaner in the lane, followed by Khalil Hopson’s agonizingly, tantalizingly miss at the buzzer, enabled Hickory to hurdle host Sharon, 50-49, Thursday night.
“One step closer to the region (5-AAA) championship, which was our goal,” Cannone commenced. “Sharon’s very good, and we were fortunate. It’s been like that three or four games this year. But I think that shows a little character from our kids.”
Sharon surged back from a 43-32 deficit entering the final frame.
Carnell Hawkins hit a pair of free throws with 40.9 ticks to play as the Tigers took their 1st lead since the 3:07 segment of the 1st quarter — 49-48.
Cannone called a timeout with 38.5 ticks to play, and Sonoga sank a floater, reprising his game-winner during last year’s District 10 opening-round playoff triple against Central Tech. It was only his 2nd field goal of the night.
“ ... I just saw an opening,” a smiling Sonoga said.
“They talk about (Matt) Votino, and they talk about my son (Anthony), and (Vinnie) Mastrian’s been coming on strong, But the unsung heroes are (Donté) Green and Sonoga — they do all the dirty work, the rebounding, the defense,” Coach Cannone commended. “He’s a veteran and a senior.
“We set up an (inbounds) play to try to hit a ‘home-run’ pass, but (the Tigers) extended the pressure,” Cannone explained. “They didn’t bite on Mastrian coming up, (Darrell) Stovall was there. So we got it across to Vinnie, then (Sonoga) saw the lane ... he saw an opening, and he took it, what, a six-footer?”
On Sharon’s ensuing possession the Hornets packed it in the lane in an attempt to deny a drive by Hopson. Nonetheless, the quicksilver Sharon senior split a pair of defenders and got the ball to the basket.
“How many times did that ball bounce?” Cannone rhetorically asked.
“To lay it all out on the line like that, then don’t get one bounce at the end, I don’t know if it could hurt any more,” admitted 1st-year Sharon skipper Jason Rankin. “We got the shot we wanted. I thought he might’ve gone a couple seconds earlier ... but we practice that all the time, and we got a good shot.
“It just didn’t bounce in,” continued Rankin, replaying the final shot in his mind. “I thought the first bounce was in, the second bounce, the same thing. It just seemed like a little bit of wind blew it to one side, then it went off the rim.”
Hopson had a game-high 17 points for surging Sharon (8-5 Region 5-AAA, 10-8) overall, which has won 6 of its last 8 as it bids for a D-10 tournament berth. Also, Stovall snagged a game-high 7 caroms and scored 11 points, while D’Amond Crawford contributed 9 points and 6 caroms.
Led by Hopson’s 4-for-4 marksmanship, Sharon shot 10 for 12 from the line during the 4th frame. However as Rankin related,
“We dug our own hole (after leading 12-4 midway through the 1st quarter). We stopped moving the ball, and some guys for them made shots that we didn’t expect, to be honest with you. When a kid doesn’t score one game, then hits (three) three’s the next (Mastrian), you’ve gotta give them credit.
“They played well enough to actually create and force the tempo, and we played at their pace,” Rankin admitted. “We’re down so many guys, we can’t play as fast as we want to. But I give the kids credit, a lot of resolve.
“When we took the lead, we needed one stop, and then a kid who hasn’t scored all year for them (Sonoga) hits a shot, so you’ve gotta give them credit,” summarized Rankin, regarding Hickory. “You know, if Votino or Cannone beats you, then you know that’s exactly how you’re gonna lose. But when a kid that’s basically a screener and a passer makes the shot, that kind’ve hurts even more.”
Despite being double-teamed at the outset, Votino vaulted to a team-high 15 points and distributed 7 assists for Hickory (12-1, 16-3), which has won 13 of its last 14. Anthony Cannone contributed 10 and Vinnie Mastrian mustered 11, tossing in a trio of treys during the 3rd period, when the Stingers extended a 27-21 margin at intermission to 11 through 3 quarters.
“You’ve always gotta be ready. You never know when your shot’s gonna come, so you’ve gotta be ready, and I was fortunate enough to knock ’em down,” Mastrian said. “You see one go in, then you think they’re all gonna go in after that, and you just gotta keep shooting, and eventually they’ll go in.”
Hickory hit only 18 of 44 floor shots (41 percent), and Green, Mastrian and Sonoga evenly divided 18 of the Hornets’ 27 rebounds. Votino’s 8-for-10 accuracy was the extent of the Stingers’ charity stripe shooting.
Both teams turned over the ball 11 times. Four of Hickory’s occurred during the 4th frame, the last of which set up Hawkins’ heroics.
“(Eleven)-point lead. Last time we played Sharon at home, they turned us over and we made some bad decisions in the fourth quarter, and it was the same thing again,” Coach Cannone confided. “Their pressure bothered us to get into (sets), and it was the first time I saw some of my guys, maybe not wanting the ball, or unsure. That pressure does that. I feel good when the ball’s in ‘Vo’s’ or Anthony’s hands, but (the Tigers) knew that also and they put tremendous pressure on both those guys.”
In the regular-season’s waning weeks, Cannone & Co. can use all the help they can get to close out a region crown.
“I counted three or four bounces (on Hopson’s final shot). I thought after the second bounce, I thought it was goin’ down. So, thank you, dad. I know he was looking out for us,” Cannone concluded.
HICKORY 8 19 16 7 50
SHARON 14 7 11 17 49
HICKORY — Votino 3-8-10-15, Cannone 5-0-0-10, Green 2-0-0-4, V.Mastrian 4-0-0-11, Sonoga 2-0-0-5, Nardone 0-0-0-0, N.Mastrian 2-0-0-5, Pryts 0-0-0-0. 3-pt. goals: V.Mastrian 3, Votino 1, Sonoga 1, N.Mastrian 1. Totals: 18-8-10-50.
SHARON — Hopson 5-6-8-17, Hawkins 2-2-2-6, Stovall 4-3-6-11, Crawford 4-1-2-9, Henry 1-2-2-4, Porterfield 1-0-0-2, Jennings 0-0-0-0, Robinson 0-0-0-0. 3-pt. goal: Hopson 1. Totals: 17-14-20-49.
JV — Hickory, 59-50. Nick Tantuo 19, Nate Mastrian 16 points for HIckory; Aubray Jennings 17, Jevonte Robinson 11 for Sharon.