by Cliff Mehrtens

HUNTERSVILLE – Lake Norman Charter’s basketball teams, not exactly by design, are having similar success this season.

The Knights boys are 12-4 overall and lead the Southern Piedmont 1A/2A conference with a 7-1 record. The girls’ squad is 11-4 and tied for the conference lead, also at 7-1.

Both coaches, when asked what is fueling their teams, mentioned defense.

And, both teams have surged after sluggish starts (the boys were 1-3; the girls 0-3).

“We have a heavy load of seniors, so our leadership’s been good,” Lake Norman Charter boys coach Aaron Reeves said. “They know what’s expected. We pointed that out at the beginning of this season because with many of our players, we thought when they were seniors, it’d be their year to do something. For four years, they’ve come to work hard every day.”

Six of the 13 Knights boys are seniors, led by guards Davis Elkins (10.5 scoring average) and Jamon Cunningham (10.8 points, 3.2 assists), and forwards Alex Scearce (8.3 points, 6.8 rebounds) and Marcus Hill-Wilson (6.9 points).

Malik McCormick, a sophomore forward, leads the team with a 13.4 scoring average and grabs 6.1 rebounds per game. Freshman Nick Worthy has filled in effectively while three teammates are out with injuries.

“We’re doing well with balance,” Reeves said. “We’ve got a lot of good shooters. Last year, we were more of an outside shooting team, but this year we can work it inside. We’ve seen a lot of different defenses.”

Lake Norman Charter’s rugged pre-conference schedule included losses to 4A Hough (which is 13-3) and private school power Charlotte Latin (13-3), and a victory against 4A Gastonia Ashbrook (11-6).

“When we were 3-4, we had some heads that were hanging,” Reeves said. “I told the team that if we could survive that stretch, we’d be alright. Now we’re in the conference race and every game is important. The kids have started to feed well off that. They seem hungry. They’ve set some lofty goals for themselves.”

Lake Norman Charter’s girls’ team is on a six-game winning streak. Like their counterparts, the Knights have balance offensively and stress defense.

“Our primary focus has been on defense,” girls coach Bobby Williams said. “We have some pretty good athletes. They’ve gotten into it and held some pretty good teams to (scoring) numbers below their average.”

Alex Busch, a junior guard, averages 14.7 points and is the outside threat. Ezinne Mbamalu, a 6-foot-2 junior, is the inside threat and averages 13.1 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots. They’re surrounded by the steady play of Sierra Wiley (7.6 scoring average), freshman Sarah Novrovski (6.9 rebounds) and Carolyn Huddy, whose 54 assists is a team-high.

“Alex has had a very good year,” Williams said. “She’s an explosive player. Ezinne has really worked on her post-up game. Sierra, who transferred from Mallard Creek, has cranked it up defensively and offensively. She’s very talented.”

“We knew we could score, but at times early in the season we had trouble stopping people. Now, the hard work is paying off.”

Williams didn’t have to do a complete hard sell to get the players to concentrate on defense, but it’s not something most youngsters eagerly want to refine.

“I told them it’s not the fun part of the game, but it wins championships,” he said. “You don’t see it on ESPN highlights, because that’s mostly dunks and 3-pointers.”

The girls team, like the boys, struggled in the early going with losses to 4A Hopewell (by nine points), 4A Hough (by seven) and 3A Ashbrook (by two).

“It was tough,” Williams said. “But I told someone then that we could be the best 0-3 team in the state. I thought we could’ve won all three of them. I told the team that we’re 0-3 and it’s no fun, but if we learn from this, it will help us. We weren’t going to see this level of competition the rest of the year.”

The Knights’ lone misstep in the conference schedule was a loss to Lincolnton, which they avenged with a 27-point victory Jan. 24.

“We know we’re going to get everybody’s best game every night,” Williams said. “We can’t look past anybody, can’t take any games off. I think this could be the most talented team we’ve fielded at Charter, and we’ve had 19- and 20-win seasons. It’s pretty satisfying to see them believing in each other.”