ACC stars won the exhibition 104-84, pulling away in a fast-paced second half after trailing most of the first half to advance to 14-12 in the series. Crossfire led 12-5 then 37-25 after an 11-0 run capped by Mars Hill alum Jerome Ramsey’s three-pointer. It was 79-45 ACC stars, the rest of the way. They tied it at 39, with 1:40 to go in the half.
Game MVP Hicks then dunked, was fouled on the play and made the free throw for a three-point edge. Duke’s Amile Jefferson dunked. A buzzer shot by the ACC squad made it 46-41 their favor at the break.
A slimmed-down, athletic Hicks scored 19 points, and grabbed 11 rebounds. He won the post-game dunk contest.
Hicks told The Tribune after the game that beating Gonzaga for the NCAA title April 3 was “the best feeling.” He called it a “complete 180 from last year,” when losing on a last-second shot to Villanova. “Redemption” was the determined Heels’ theme in group text messaging all season long, and they fulfilled that mission. “Redeemed” was also a key concept in Crossfire co-founder Jamie Johnson’s halftime sermon.
Meeks at 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds is the largest of UNC’s Dynamic Duo up front, on the nation’s best-rebounding squad. He and Hicks are lauded as NBA lottery pick candidates.
“Awesome” is Meeks’ description of the championship. He credits “blessing from the man above.” He told The Tribune he feels “truly blessed,” to achieve that athletic team goal.
In the championship win, UNC (33-7) trailed by three at halftime but took control in the second half to win its sixth national title ever. Up three points with 22 seconds left, Meeks blocked the shot of star Nigel Williams-Goss. Johnson recounted to the crowd such plays — also Meek’s late steal, and Hick’s pivotal shot in final minutes. The game was tied at 65, with two minutes to go. UNC scored the last six points, to triumph by 71-65.
Meeks was the largest ACC all-star who played, most jovial one and fan favorite. He launched a practice shot from the bench. He often smiled during play. Meeks playfully questioned some referee calls — revving up fan support and getting the striped-shirt ones to reverse a few of their decisions. Also questioning with a smile was largest ACC all-star Beejay Anya from the bench. Injured, he did not suit up. The N.C. State behemoth looked heavier than his listed 6-9 and 320 pounds.
Duke’s sleek 6-9 Jefferson was next in antics, from pre-game onward. He told The Tribune the exhibition was “great fun.” It was a rare chance for arch-rival Heels and Devils to join forces, on a seven-game post-season tour.
Jefferson was in the dunk contest. He averaged a double-double as a junior, again 11 points as a senior to go with two blocks. The Philly native blocked six shots, in the NCAA tourney loss to South Carolina.
Joining current seniors as ACC all-stars was Nolan Smith, 28, Duke’s “special assistant” varsity coach for over a year. Smith helped the Blue Devils win the 2010 national title. Then as a senior co-captain, the point guard averaged 20.6 points and led the ACC in scoring. The 2011 NBA first-round pick first spoke with The Tribune 10 years ago, while at national top-ranked Oak Hill (Va.) Academy playing at Christ School and the Plumlee brothers.
Smith was runner-up in the three-point contest Saturday. In the first round he was off the mark, then red hot to score 16 before time expired. Duke’s Matt Jones had 14, Ramsey 13, Crossfire co-founder Randy Shepherd 12, and UNC’s Stilman White 10.
Crossfire’s 6-6 Kellen Dunham, had 18 in round one then outdid Smith 23-15 in the two-player shoot-off. He made shot after shot, in rapid-fire succession. Dunham was Butler’s third-best career scorer.
Dunham and another Midwesterner on Crossfire, 6-9 Matt Costello who starred for Michigan State, were undrafted in 2016. Both signed trials with Memphis in the NBA last November, and play for Iowa in the NBA Development League in summers. Costello had some double-doubles in a taste of NBA action pre-Christmas.
Costello said going against the UNC duo was “tough,” and he sees why they have near-certain “NBA futures.” He and 6-10 John Cannon, UNCA alum also on Crossfire, both were dunk contestants after making multiple dunks in the game. Cannon said for his basketball playing, “I thank the Lord allows me to do it” and for such a good cause, in traveling with Crossfire.
Crossfire went to ten nations and 14 states last year, Shepherd noted.
Jackson Simmons, conference rival to three Henderson County schools as a Smoky Mountain Mustang great, was a 6-7 UNC reserve forward. He helped coach UNC-Charlotte, while studying there for a master’s degree in liberal arts that he completes next week. He eyes a coaching career, like his esteemed mother Cindi Simmons.
Sam Smithson, 6-8 former West Henderson and Western Carolina Catamount star, played despite an injury to help the cause. He also is firmly into the blend of sports and ministry.
Some ACC stars echoed messages. Meeks volunteered to The Tribune that he is grateful beyond UNC’s team title, to spiritual faith and “God’s forgiveness” for sins.
In halftime sermons, Randy Shepherd told the capacity crowd in Kimmel Arena that becoming born again can help those feeling empty “physically…spiritually…emotionally.” In striving for a sin-free life, “none of us have made all of our shots.”
Jamie Johnson described a domino effect of faith, repentance, salvation and eternal life. He said the goal is to become a “national champion — for all of eternity.”
For more on Crossfire programs, check crossfireministry.com.