Gaston Christian chases history: Eagles host NCISAA 3A basketball state championship game on Saturday

By Richard Walker

Gaston Christian chases history on Saturday night when it hosts Asheville Christian Academy at 6 p.m. for the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Class 3A basketball state championship game.

The Eagles will seek their first-ever basketball state title and the county’s first state boys basketball title since 2011.

First-year coach Aaron Waters recognizes that his team’s 9-18 record doesn’t grab anyone’s attention. But he also knows his team has played a challenging schedule in a challenging league and it’s playing its best basketball of the season right now.

“It’s my first year as head coach and the whole team is practically in their first year here,” Waters said. “We played every top team in the state we could play and played a lot of them really close. I know our record is not reflective of how good we are. And we’re certainly happy to be here.”

Junior William Kelly leads the Eagles with averages of 19.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Junior Greg Brockington adds 12.4 points and 4.4 assists. And sophomore Derek Bradley (9.4 points), freshman Joe Rhyne (8.5 points), sophomore Brenton Elliott (5.9 points, 5.7 rebounds) and senior Cody Chapman (5.1 points, 5.5 rebounds) are other standouts.

An indication of Gaston Christian’s challenging schedule is that five of their losses came against teams competing in other NCISAA state title games on Saturday. Two more losses came to a team that lost in the state semifinals and another loss to one of the state’s top prep teams in Denver’s Combine Academy.

Despite the 6-18 overall record following a 74-33 loss to Westminster Catawba in the Metrolina Conference tournament, Gaston Christian was seeded third in the Western N.C. 8-team NCISAA 3A basketball playoffs.

Once in the postseason, Gaston Christian thrived, winning 52-50 at home over Hickory Grove Christian in the first round, then winning 64-61 at second-seeded SouthLake Christian to advance to the state semifinals at home against Eastern N.C. No. 3 seed Cape Fear Academy.

After a season-high 29-point victory (85-56), the Eagles learned they would host the state championship after fourth-seeded Asheville Christian Academy upset top-seeded Eastern N.C. team High Point Christian 51-44 in its semifinal game.

Gaston Christian actually played and beat Asheville Christian Academy 43-34 at home on Nov. 14.

But that seems like a long time ago for both teams, but especially for Asheville Christian Academy (9-16). ACA played the game without standout 6-foot-10, 205-pound junior center De’Ante Green.

“They didn’t have De’Andre Green in the first game,” Waters said. “That’ll definitely be an adjustment for us to have to combat him.”

Green is rated a 4-star recruit who recently trimmed his list of potential college choices to Florida State, North Carolina, N.C. State, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.

Prior to this season, Gaston Christian had advanced to the state playoffs only once – in 2020.

But many of those players departed as did head coach Josh Gross.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have helped the Eagles gain talent since four key players transferred from public schools who weren’t sure they’d even have seasons before the Eagles began their 2020-21 season Nov. 10; Brockington transferred from Kings Mountain and Bradley, Elliott and Kelly transferred from Stuart Cramer.

“That uncertainty went a long way because kids just wanted an opportunity to play some games,” Waters said. “It was tough. We new players and a really tough schedule. But it helped us see what was out there and we’ve gotten better and better as the season has gone on.”

The last Gaston County school to win a state boys basketball title was Huss in 2011. Gaston Day is the last to advance to a state final as the Spartans were NCISAA Class 1A runner-up in 2018.