BURNSVILLE — Small forward Cal Barrett of Bishop McGuinness earlier this season had a stretch in which he was benched, with the intention of lighting a fire under him.
After the Villains’ double overtime playoff win over Thomasville, Barrett’s attention turned to the next opponent. That night, he texted his coach, Josh Thompson, about top-seed Mountain Heritage’s top scorer, Max Smoker.
“Can I guard him?” asked Barrett, a junior.
“We’ll look at the film, Cal, and we’ll decide who the matchups are,” Thompson responded.
“I want to prove that I can guard people,” Barrett said.
On Tuesday, his defense played a key role in the Villains (25-5) knocking off No. 1-seed Mountain Heritage 58-54 to reach the NCHSAA Class 1-A Western Regional final. McGuinness will take on No. 3-seed Eastern Randolph (28-2) at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Freedom High School.
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Bishop McGuinness has six state championships, with NCHSAA titles in 2009 and 2019 under Thompson’s tenure. It hasn’t made a regional appearance or won a regional title since 2019.
“Something that is really good about him — and it’s been that way since Day One — is he’s just an unselfish player,” Thompson said. “Sometimes a talented player can — in a good way — be a little selfish, but Jamison is not a selfish player. He just came in and became us, rather than expecting us to become him.”
McGuinness’ regular season non-conference schedule included NCISAA state champion Greensboro Day and Greensboro Dudley, to whom its lost in December’s HAECO Invitational.
McGuinness’ only other losses were to non-conference Asheville Christian, NCISAA 2A state champion Burlington and North Surry. The Villains became the first team since Thompson took over in 2004 to win both the regular season, at 12-0, and conference tournament championships in the same season. They are currently riding a 14-game winning streak.
Mountain Heritage, under its all-time winningest coach, Barry Johnson, went 454-267 from 1983-2011.
In 2014, Johnson took a coaching jobs in Elizabethton, Tenn., splitting time between there and Burnsville. But he eventually moved back to Burnsville.
Thompson’s former position became open after last season. In 2022-23 under Johnson, Mountain Heritage went 23-1 during the regular season, 12-0 in conference play and won the Western Highlands Conference 1A/2A regular season and tournament titles.
“Every game this year, I could probably count on one hand the number of times where this team hasn’t had a fire in their eyes and that is rare,” Thompson said. “They really have a being-out-for-blood mentality. I think a lot of it goes back to how our season ended last year in the second round of the playoffs on the road. I think nobody was satisfied with that.”
In the playoffs, Thomas said his team’s “fire” has only intensified.
Against Mountain Heritage, McGuinness had leads of 12-0 and led 23-5 midway through the second quarter, with a flurry of empty Cougars possessions and turnovers, thanks to the defense of senior James Jernigan and Graves, deflections by senior Andrew Schrage and blocked shots from junior Miller Aho.
But the the 6-foot-9 Barrett used his length to contain Smoker for much of the game. Smoker finished with 18 points, three below his average.
Mountain Heritage (26-2) settled down, however.
Cougars senior Adam Ledford, who had averaged 5.6 points per game, went to the bench with a cut on his chin but came back as Mountain Heritage had a 10-0 run to close the half.
According to the Asheville Citizen Times, Ledford made back-to-back 3s after halftime in the midst of the Cougars’ 19-2 run across the second and third quarters. Ledford matched his season-high of 13 points.
Graves, who had 12 points, fouled out with about five minutes remaining.
With the score tied at 50 and about two minutes left, Mountain Heritage was in a 1-3-1 zone defense. Caught in a rotation, Schrage, whom Thompson called one of his hardest workers ever, drove baseline. Swinging to Campbell, Campbell swung it to Barrett, who made an “extra pass” to Nicholas Graves.
With an open look, Graves, who has shot 45.5 percent from behind the arc, made the go-ahead three-pointer from the corner as the Villains won 58-54.
Thompson believes the intensity has only increased in the postseason.
“I’ve been really proud of how they have approached every game,” Thompson said. “Whether it’s been a 30-point game or a three-point game, it’s been the same team, the same mentality, which I think has contributed to us being able to win some close games here in the playoffs.”