MATTHEWS – When the 2017-18 season ended with Carmel Christian holding the NCISAA 2A title and with almost their entire roster coming back to defend it, the Cougars were already thinking repeat.
Carmel Christian would have four Division I players in their starting lineup with Jake Boggs, Myles Pierre, Marten Maide and Appalachian State commit Donovan Gregory, their superstar wing and one of the state’s top talents.
Then, over the summer, there began to be some rumblings that the Cougars could potentially add another star. DeAngelo Epps had run out of eligibility under the rule book of the NCISAA 4A division that houses schools including Country Day, where he had averaged nearly 19 points and over seven rebounds per game as a junior.
Epps has been friends with Gregory and Pierre for years through circuit ball. Carmel Christian first-year head coach Joe Badgett had heard of Epps, but he wanted to see him play for himself. The worst thing he could do, Badgett thought, was to bring in a player who wouldn’t buy into what the Cougars do and potentially could mess up the chemistry of a team fresh off a title.
“I went to a circuit game to see him, and the kid drew four charges in an AAU game,” Badgett said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Man, he can come play with me any day,’ because nobody does that in those circuit games. Nobody does that.”
Off the bat, Epps came in as an above-average defender who fit perfectly with the Cougars’ fast-paced, trapping style of defense. The offense, though, would take a little time.
At Country Day, Epps was the man. He took 13.5 shots per game and made 49 percent of those chances. While Badgett loved the shooting percentage and Epps’ game in general (many of his points come at or around the basket as he continuously attacks the rim), he knew Epps would have to become more economical in his scoring approach.
“I tried to take smarter shots,” Epps said. “Coach Badgett talks a lot about it not being the shot that you take, but where you are on the floor when you take it and knowing your strengths and weaknesses. I think a lot about that.”
Epps averaged 14.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and two steals per game this season despite averaging just 10.3 shots per game.
He also shot 54 percent from the floor and took 70 fewer shots despite playing four more games.
“It was a little struggle at first,” Badgett said. “Our emphasis is we give you a lot of freedom offensively because we don’t coach offense. We coach defense. He’s a defensive player, so he automatically fits. There was some, ‘Oh, coach didn’t say nothing when I took that crazy shot,’ moments early on, but we got him doing some different things. Plus, he’s a smart kid. He got what we wanted him to early on.”
In the title game, as he’d been all season, Epps was fantastic as he scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds to go with three steals.
Epps came into the game with a bruised and injured shoulder. He was fouled on one play, and his wrist and thumb clanked as they hit the backboard. Epps was so shaken up, the Cougars had to sub him out in the fourth quarter of one of the best high school basketball games I’ve ever seen and have teammate Myles Hunter shoot his ensuing free throws.
When Epps returned several minutes later, his shoulder, thumb and wrist were so injured he labored at the charity stripe and air-balled a free throw. The next attempt looked so uncomfortable I thought he’d have to sit out, but Epps remained in as he willed the ball in the basket.
“I’ll put some ice on it,” Epps promised the trainer as he exited the locker room looking equal parts relieved and jubilant.
This had been a long journey, but one that made Epps a better player and teammate.
“At the beginning, it was an adjustment,” Epps said. “Donovan and Marten were used to playing together a certain way and I’m coming from Country Day where I had the ball in my hands most of the game. I knew coming over here it was going to be a big change, but I didn’t have a problem conforming because I wanted to get better and be ready for college.”
Epps has a bright future ahead of him at the College of Charleston, where he’ll play next season.
But for now, Epps is glowing in the luster of a state championship run. While the title is great, he said going through the process is what he’ll always remember.
“I’m grateful for the transition and I think I made the best of it,” he said. “Coming in, I would have never expected this. It is so special for me. I’ve been playing with Marten, Donovan, Myles Pierre and all of these guys for a long time and numerous years in circuit ball. Just to be here right now and be with them is so special for me.
“I love it, and I’ll always remember this.”