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As a number 8 seed heading into the state playoffs, the Warhorses on Feb. 23 had the advantage of hosting the opening round game against Thomasville High School, seeded 25th. But it didn’t start well for the Owen High team.

The Bulldogs’ defense forced Owen to turn the ball over early. The Bulldogs carried a 3-point lead into halftime. But in the second half, the Warhorses turned back into the team that has thrilled home crowds all season long.

Led by sophomore Ben Craig and junior Brian Bartlett, who scored 23 and 28 points respectively, the Warhorses ended the third quarter tied with Thomasville, 47-47.

Just the day before, the Warhorses talked about the challenge they faced in the Bulldogs.

“We watched game film on them and knew their style of play,” Warhorse head coach Chuck Robinson said. “We figured they had probably not faced a team that plays zone defense as well as we do, so we decided to mix it up between our 1-3-1 and our 2-3 and shut them down.”

The strategy worked for Owen, who overwhelmed the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter, outscoring them 26-12 in the final frame.

“We played great on defense, and our shots were falling, so we were able to come out on top,” Robinson said.

The victory meant the Warhorses advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

Owen hosted the ninth-seeded Lincolnton Wolves, led by 7-foot-1 center Raekwon Long. The senior-laden Wolves built a established a 9-point lead going into the half.

“I felt like we played them well for three of the four quarters,” Robinson said. “But the third quarter hurt us.”

Lincolnton outscored Owen 28-6 in the third quarter and handed the Warhorses an 82-59 loss, ending Owen’s season.

“The boys worked really hard in the off-season and stayed focused,” Robinson said. “I think our future looks bright.”

Owen’s core - Ben Craig (14.2 points per game), Brian Bartlett (15.4 ppg), Mathew Brown (12.2 ppg) - is set to return next season. Robinson anticipates an even bigger season from the trio next year.

“They’re young,” he said. “They’re going to grow and mature, and they’re just going to get better.”

Improving for next season was the immediate topic of discussion among players following the loss to Lincolnton, Robinson said.

“The boys were already talking about getting ready for next season last night” following the loss, he said. “And that’s how it’s been all season. They have really bought into the system.”

The maturation of a group of impressive freshmen gives the team another reason to be optimistic about the future, according to Robinson.

“I think our future looks bright,” he said. “We have a lot of kids returning next year and some good sophomores coming up. I think we’re in good shape for the next few years.”

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