Paradise Found

Duo overcomes off-the-court woes to help take South Meck to new heights

by C. Jemal Horton

South Mecklenburg’s Carrington “K.T.” Kirkpatrick (left) and Malcom Mathews are two big reasons the Sabres have a chance to emerge with a Southwestern 4A conference championship. (C. Jemal Horton/SCW photo)

As the winter nights whisk by, and they awaken each morning to see their team still is atop the conference standings, South Mecklenburg boys basketball players Carrington “K.T.” Kirkpatrick and Malcom Mathews can’t help but forge a smile.

Pretty much everyone on the South Meck campus is giddy these days, as the Sabres have been in first place in the Southwestern 4A conference. With an 19-4 record, 11-2 in league play, the Sabres have won their first conference title in nine years and nearly equaled their win total from the previous three seasons combined (20).

And perhaps no one appreciates where South Meck is right now more than Kirkpatrick and Mathews.

That’s because Kirkpatrick and Mathews have a greater appreciation for where they are as individuals: better students and, as a result, better people and better players for the No. 1 team in South Charlotte Weekly’s Southern Mecklenburg Boys Super 7 rankings.

Entering their Friday, Feb. 10, regular-season finale against East Meck, the 6-foot Carrington, a senior, has been scintillating along the perimeter, leading the Sabres in scoring with 13 points per game while adding five assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 steals. The 6-9 Mathews, meanwhile, has been an interior force in his junior season, blocking a whopping 5.7 shots per game to go with his 12.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists.

“I think they’re both really focused now, and you can tell they’re excited and enjoying this (team success),” South Meck coach John Fitch said. “They appreciate it, just from the standpoint of when you lose something and you get a second chance, you’ve got to make the most of it.”

Waiting to excel

As far as Kirkpatrick is concerned, this South Meck turnaround was supposed to have taken place two years ago, when he was a promising sophomore primed to start for the Sabres, who were coming off a 5-19 season. But when academic shortcomings left him ineligible for the 2009-10 season, Kirkpatrick couldn’t contribute.

The Sabres subsequently went 3-15.

“The year I sat out, everybody was saying, ‘Man, if you would’ve played, we probably could’ve had a better record,’” Kirkpatrick recalled. “That’s when Malcom had first started playing varsity, (current junior guard Craig Thompson) had come in, and (former standout guard) K.J. Ross was still here. We probably could’ve done well that year.”

That season, the Sabres missed Kirkpatrick’s quickness and guile in the backcourt. They missed his ability to take defenders off the dribble and fly in for layups or dish off to teammates for open shots. They missed the way he harasses ball-handlers trying to make their way up the court.

But the Sabres might not have missed Kirkpatrick as badly as he missed them. It was one of the worst winters of his young life.

“It was a tough year,” he said. “I cried a couple times. At first, I was going to home and road games. But seeing them lose, I starting having a tough time coming to the games, so I just stopped. It hurt me too bad.”

It hurt so badly that Carrington took extra measures to make sure he didn’t experience that feeling again. Last season, he had his academic house in order and was a central reason the Sabres won 12 games, reached the league tournament finals and secured a state playoff berth. Along the way, he earned all-conference honors.

He attributes much of his success – this season and last – to the time he spent watching from the sidelines.

“It helped me get real focused, because I learned that I can’t be lazy,” Kirkpatrick said. “I can’t sit back and just expect the teachers to give me the grades. I have to go out there and do it myself and study hard. I learned that it’s books first and basketball second.”

Back on the blocks

Last season was supposed to be Mathews’ first full-time campaign on the varsity squad after he reluctantly moved up late in his freshman year – and recorded a triple-double in his first game. So entering Mathews’ sophomore season, expectations were high for the Sabres, as the 6-9 kid with the 7-foot wingspan was set to join a roster bolstered by the return of Kirkpatrick.

But then Mathews also took an involuntary hiatus because of academic deficiencies.

“I wasn’t very serious about school,” Mathews admitted. “I was caught up in the hype around basketball and all the little girls, and that’s why I wound up academically ineligible.”

But Mathews said watching the Sabres play while he sat in the stands changed his perspective, especially as the team began to show signs of significant improvement. South Meck climbed to 12 wins in 2010-11 and yielded appearances in the conference tournament finals and the state playoffs. But so much more seemed possible.

“I was upset last year,” Mathews said, “because I think we could’ve gone farther with me in there. We had another (inside) player here, (6-5) Nehemiah Mabson, who I could’ve worked well with, too.”

Today, Mathews appears to be both regretful and thankful for his time on the sidelines last season.

“It helped me mature, to take adult responsibilities,” he said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Lifting a program

This season, Carrington and Mathews are one of southern Mecklenburg County’s best inside-outside combinations.

Mathews, for one, has established himself as one of the most feared shot-blockers in the state. He uses impeccable timing, athleticism and that wingspan to rack up his nearly six blocks per outing.

On eight occasions this season, Mathews has swatted at least seven shots in a game. That includes a career-high 14 blocks in a two-point loss to East Mecklenburg last month.

“Malcom’s such a phenomenal shot-blocker,” Fitch said. “You’ve got to get (the shot) up there quickly, or he’s going to get it.”

Mathews’ abilities allow his teammates to gamble a bit more on defense, as the Sabres  average 11 steals each outing, which helps create easy transition baskets. It’s also helped Kirkpatrick come up with a nickname for Mathews.

“I know that I can play as aggressive as I want on defense because, if you get by me, I know I’ve got ‘The Gobbler’ back there to snatch it up,” Kirkpatrick said with a laugh.

And although he ranks second to Kirkpatrick among South Meck scorers, Mathews knows how he best helps the team.

“I see my role as a defensive player,” Mathews said. “You get an adrenaline rush when you block someone’s shot. You know when you get in somebody’s head, because they get more physical and try to shove me out of the paint.

“I’m the type of player to get the stops that we need in clutch time and then maybe some big offensive plays.”

Some of Mathews’ points have come after receiving an alley-oop pass from Kirkpatrick, who has become more of a distributor this season. But Kirkpatrick doesn’t mind scoring, either. Against Myers Park last week, he registered a season-high 28 points.

“K.T. has become more of a leader,” Fitch said. There’s no question that he led the team last year, but if you watch him on the floor this year, he’s talking to guys, he’s talking in the huddles. And that’s made such a difference for us.”

Kirkpatrick said he doesn’t care what role he has to play; he’s simply happy to be playing for the Sabres again.

“Just knowing that I’ve come back and we’re having a great year and Malcom’s eligible, too, I just feel good,” Kirkpatrick said. “My teammates have faith in me. They know that I can make big plays when we need them. It really has me excited about our (postseason) chances.

“I feel like we’ve worked hard for this – from what we’ve done in the classroom to all the (windsprints) that we ran to all the things Coach Fitch said about going hard in the preseason when we were coming to workouts.

“I just really appreciate where we are right now.”

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