There was a theme to the Orange Panthers boys basketball season: climbing uphill.
When school started in August, Coach Greg Motley knew, in a perfect world, that his starting five was set. Eryk Brandon-Dean would be the senior point guard, balancing a transition offense with a steady half-court game anchored on the front line by returning center Logan Vosburg and forwards Connor Crabtree and Daniel Mulligan.
But it isn’t a perfect world.
By know, anyone who has read this website knows Brandon-Dean never saw the court this season for Orange. He suffered a torn ACL playing football against Southern Durham, a cruel fate since the Spartans have been Orange’s main rival on the gridiron and the hardwood since becoming conference rivals in 2012.
Brandon-Dean was the player Motley could least afford to lose. Crabtree, Vosburg and Mulligan could get themselves in position to score, but who would convey the ball to them? Who would lead Orange’s vaunted transition game that carried them to the brink of the 2014-15 Big 8 regular season championship? And where would the backcourt points come from?
In retrospect, the answers came with time. Crabtree wasn’t simply a low post scorer in the same vein as Vosburg. He was the most unique of prep players. Someone who could be the tallest player on the floor while creating his own shot off the dribble, presenting matchup nightmares for opposing teams the same way Kevin Durant does for Oklahoma City.
The backcourt situation took time. Motley used a revolving door of guards in early losses to East Chapel Hill, Sanderson and Northern Durham searching for the right combination. December’s Holiday in the Pines tournament would ultimately prove to be the starting ground for Reggie Bradsher and Cameron Cavanaugh, who started the remainder of the season.
That tournament would also pave the way for Orange’s best basketball of the season. After a 3-7 start, including an opening round loss to Richmond County (105-96, where Crabtree would amass 43 points), the Panthers finished the season 15-3.
The biggest stepping stone may have been the most low key. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Panthers faced 2-A squad Goldsboro at the famed Sykes Gymnasium on the campus of the Durham School of the Arts. At that point, the Cougars were one of only four undefeated teams in the entire state, regardless of classification.
Orange came away with an 85-69 victory, leading for much of the second half. Crabtree scored 28 points, while Vosburg added 17 points and 15 rebounds.
Unfortunately for Orange, the regular season success didn’t lead to a regular season championship. Again, Southern Durham found a way to top the Panthers, winning 81-62 on January 29th to all but sew up the Big 8 crown.
But there was always the Big 8 Tournament. Whether it was the PAC-6, the Carolina 6, the Tri-State or the Big 8, conference tournaments have always been the hardest hurdle to climb for Orange. It had been 31 years since they won the 1985 3-A Mid State Tournament title, it’s last conference tournament championship.
After rolling to home victories over Northwood and Cedar Ridge, the Panthers faced Southern Durham again at Chapel Hill High School. As opposed to the previous game against Southern, the Panthers got off to a strong start, leading 18-11 lead behind three pointers from Cavanaugh and Crabtree.
True to form, the Spartans came back and led 45-36 early in the third quarter. But Mulligan played the game of his life, scoring a career-high 27 points as Orange closed the game on a 32-20 run to finally get the elusive victory over the Spartans 68-65.
In the state playoffs, Orange would defeat Triton 74-39 despite the Hawks scoring the game’s first nine points. Crabtree led the way again with 26 points while Vosburg added 16.
For the second straight year, Havelock would end the