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ACC stars, Crossfire delight packed crowd

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Brice Johnson soars over UNC star teammate Paige, in the dunk contest. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Fans filled Kimmel Arena to near its 3,200 capacity. They saw senior ACC stars run their series lead to 16-11. They cheered hometown stars.

Youths roared loudest after sparkling plays by two marquee UNC Tar Heels, guard Marcus Paige and all-America forward Brice Johnson. They were game co-MVPs. They each scored 30 points. They combined for 30 (17.5 by Johnson) in NCAA play this past season.

Crossfire closed the gap in the second half to single digits, and tied it at 75 on Montreat College product Tim Lewis’ basket then at 78 as Michigan State strongman Matt Costello scored. Drama peaked as 6-1 sparkplug Paige drained a three-pointer, for a lead (at 81-78) the visitors kept up.

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Tar Heel star Marcus Paige (5) drives. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Jovial Paige told The Tribune after this last stop of the ACC All-Stars tour that it capped his career on a playful note. “You gotta love this game. Playing these exhibitions was so much fun. I enjoyed it.”

“This is entertaining. But more important, is to talk about the right way to live,” Paige said of the Crossfire-ACC All-Star Classic halftime revival. He noted a key is to avoid temptations (such as for sex and drugs), which he noted is extra tough during college years. Paige said he embraced faith, while growing up Catholic.

In his peppy sermon, Crossfire co-founder Randy Shepherd warned people to avoid trying drugs — which can readily destroy mind, body and soul. “Some will hand you marijuana, pills or cocaine and say ‘it’ll make you feel good,’” he cautioned youths. The Asheville native, now 51, said he drank when at UNCA, but turned his life around after becoming “born again” He respects the body as a “temple.”

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Sam Smithson (44) closes in for a rebound, as Crossfire teammate Matt Costello of Michigan State grasps for the ball. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Shepherd urged youth to shun rap, heavy metal or other music with sinful lyrics. He called it “garbage in, garbage out” in behavior. He also spoke against such sins as lying, stealing, racist pride, and lack of faith.

He said the path to heaven goes beyond church and behaving well, to acting “biblically correct.” He emphasized embracing Jesus as savior who died on the cross to forgive others’ sins, repenting for one’s sins, and to “live for him and obey his commands.” He added, “if we deny him, he will deny us.”

“Are you right with God?…for spiritual life,” Crossfire co-founder Jamie Johnson asked the crowd, pre-game. Dozens flooded the court at halftime to take Sherpherd’s challenge to declare a life for Christ, then were counseled in a room.

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Randy Shepherd, at left, and Jamie Johnson are with their Naismith Legacy Award. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Johnson and Shepherd accepted the prestigious Naismith Legacy Award, for using basketball to advance values of “honor, respect and integrity.” Presenter Hellen Carpenter is a granddaughter of the sport’s founder, Dr. James Naismith.

Former UNC star Al Wood referenced rock star Prince’s death last Thursday as example of how “we don’t truly know the day and hour that Jesus will call us home.” Thus, he urged the crowd to grasp faith now rather than put it off.

Wood set a Final Four game mark with 31, in 1981. He and Shepherd sat two rows behind Michael Jordan at the ’16 Final Four, and spoke to men in a rescue mission in Houston.

Crossfire’s special guest Costello (6-9, 245 sr.) helped defend the post, against UNC’s monstrous Joel James (6-10, 280) and others.

Bubbly Costello told The Tribune that “It’s so important to have this platform, to impact lives for the Lord.”

Familiar area players include West Henderson ’07 grad Sam Smithson and Pisgah (’06) and Brevard College alum Jonathan Whitson — both for Crossfire. They were 20-point prep scorers, as seniors. Rugged, 6-6, dome-headed Whitson helped lead Pisgah Bears to the 2-A state hoops title in 2005 — most recent of any WNC boys’ squad. He set 12 BC marks. He is a Bears’ assistant coach.

Whitson, 28 this year, married a year and a half ago. Their first child is due in October. In his sermon, Shepherd praised Whitson for remaining pure for his marriage.

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Crossfire co-founder Jamie Johnson, at right, jostles with all-America Brice Johnson. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

“The main purpose of this is for the halftime show, to share the Gospel,” Whitson told The Tribune. He added “it’s fun to play these (ACC) guys.” He has been with Crossfire since 2010.

Smithson, the 6-9 former Falcon and WCU Catamount, similarly said “the most important way to play basketball is to play for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is his third year on Crossfire.

The ACC squad included energetic John Cannon (6-10, 240 sr.). He just finished his career with UNCA, after three years as a Georgia Bulldog reserve. Cannon blocked a state-record 606 shots for Mountain Heritage in four years, as fierce rival of Hendersonville Bearcats. He was all-state, as a senior.

Two other UNCA stars won post-game contests. Sharpshooter Matt Dickey, 26, was the best three-point shooter. He sank 21 shots, in a frenzied, timed session. The former NBADL guard outdid UNC and Christ School alum Spencer Dalton (19) and Paige (17), and Crossfire’s Jerome Ramsey (16) and Shepherd.

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Dunk contest champ John Williams finishes a full-twister slam. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Six-four John “Jet” Williams at 29 still has much of his 45-inch vertical leap. He made a half-dozen slams in the game. He won dunk contest judging. “Jet” unleashed a fully-circling, reverse slam. He was a Harlem Globetrotter for three seasons, after ending his UNCA career in 2011 as third Big South player ever to surpass 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds and 200 blocks. He was second in the dunking contest at the ’11 Final Four.

Dunk runner-up Brice Johnson leaped over Paige, as among amusing stunts Saturday. Contestants ranged from 6-0 Willie Battle to 6-10 Cannon. Paige assisted Shepherd, with dribbling stunts at halftime.

For more on Crossfire such as its summer camps, check crossfireministry.com.

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