East Surry’s depth and postseason experience has proven to be a difference-maker through the first two rounds of the state playoffs.
That trend will have to continue when the Cardinals travel to Winston-Salem Prep tonight for a Class 1A West sectional final game.
The playoff road also goes through Winston-Salem for the Mount Airy Lady Bears, who take on the Phoenix at 6:30 p.m. Meanwhile, Mount Airy’s boys visit Albemarle at 7 p.m.
East Surry (23-6) has won seven of nine games, with both losses coming at the hands of two-time defending state champion Prep.
“We know we are the underdog going in there,” coach Jason Anderson of East Surry said. “I told the guys (Thursday) afternoon ‘You are basically playing for a state championship (tonight).’”
While the Cards rely heavily on senior point guard Scott Meredith (23 points per game), junior forward Carson Long (17 ppg) and senior center Seth Brim (10 ppg), they have received contributions from others at key times.
Anderson noted the play of junior Garrett Vass, junior Jacob Bowman and senior Cody Ashburn in the win over Starmount on Wednesday. The Cardinals outscored the Rams 14-6 in the fourth quarter of a 56-52 victory.
“(Wednesday) night was ugly at times, but you’ve got to win those this time of year. Our guys are used to that with the playoff run we had last year. You’ve got to be able to withstand that,” Anderson said. “We got a lot of things from different people. Garrett Vass had four points that were big in the first half. Jacob Bowman had four big points at the end. Cody Ashburn had several key rebounds. He’s the smallest guy on the floor, and he’s out there beating and banging with those big guys.”
With the inclement winter weather that slammed much of the state earlier this month, many teams have been forced to cram a lot of games in a short amount of time. Tonight’s contest will be East’s seventh game in the last two weeks.
Against Starmount, the Cards trailed by nine points at halftime before making the comeback.
“We had to grind one out,” Anderson said. “I think physically we were a little tired. We’ve played a lot of ball the last couple of weeks. Going over there and pulling one out on their home floor in the playoffs, that’s a good win.”
Prep presents its own set of challenges. The Phoenix are loaded with weapons, led by senior guards Mike Hughes (16.6 points per game) and Aaron Lipscomb (14.6 ppg), and 6-foot-8 center Coye Simmons (13.1 ppg).
East lost to Prep twice during the regular season and again in the conference tournament. Anderson said he used a zone defense in the first meeting, but the Phoenix shot extremely well from the perimeter. The last two times they’ve played, he said he felt like his team played very well defensively, but didn’t shoot the ball well. He attributed part of East’s offensive struggles to Prep’s athleticism.
In order to spring the upset tonight, the Cards can’t afford to get behind like it did against Starmount.
“We’ve got to stay in the ballgame. We can’t let them get on one of their patented runs. A 10-point lead is like 20 for them,” Anderson said. “They’ve got the total package — size, strength, speed, and depth. We have to be physical and not be timid. We can’t let their size intimidate us.”
East is no stranger to big games. The Cards reached the Western regional finals a year ago — falling to eventual state champ Prep.
“You can’t replace experience,” Anderson said. “You’ve got two experienced teams (tonight). We are excited about being able to play…getting to the sectional final, especially two years in a row, it’s not easily done, especially the way the playoffs are set up.”
Mount Airy (17-9) is the third Northwest Conference team out of four that reached the sectional final. The Bears defeated North Stanly and North Moore on the road in the first and second round. Albemarle (24-2) is the top seed from the Yadkin Valley Conference. The Bulldogs escaped a close call with Bishop McGuinness in the second round.
Mount Airy got 24 points from Caleb Horton and 20 from Clay Mounce in the 71-66 first round win over North Stanly. In the second round, Khaileel Dailey had 17 points while Horton and Carson Mounce added 13 in a 56-52 victory against North Moore.
The Lady Bears (21-5) routed Albemarle 88-67 in their second-round game. Senior Alex Atkins poured in a career-high 30 points.
“I think they feel good about their season — the fact we’ve got 20 wins, and have made it to sectional finals,” coach Howard Mayo said. “This is the time of year you look forward to as player and coach. For our seniors, they realize you lose and you are done. I think they want to continue to play.”
Mount Airy prefers an up-tempo style of play, with a number of unselfish, razor-sharp shooters.
Against Albemarle, the Bears had 30 assists as a team. Five players average nine points or more per game (Atkins, senior Kathryn Beasley, junior Davi Barbour, sophomore Ayano Shelton and senior Jasmine Varney). Senior Mikayla Seivers averages 5.7 assists per game.
For the first two rounds of the state playoffs, the Bears have enjoyed the benefit of playing in the tough Northwest Conference — scoring 80 and 88 points in blowout victories.
“We’ve been able to get some renewed confidence and renewed enthusiasm,” Mayo said.
It’s back to the grind tonight against Prep, who is 2-1 against the Bears this season and finished second behind perennial powerhouse Bishop McGuinness in the conference.
The Phoenix (21-6) are athletic and deep, led by Mychala Wolfe, Dominique Claytor and Kayla Robinson. Mayo said a big key might be slowing down point guard Christina Caesar.
“They are physically bigger than us, both in size and stature,” Mayo said. “Caesar does a very good job of making sure everybody gets involved. We’ll have to do a good job of putting ball pressure so we can slow down their size inside.
“I definitely think when we beat them at their place, we did a very good job of attacking the basket and making the extra pass. We can’t settle for the first open jump shot. We have to make them play defense for 15-20 seconds, then we’ll get a good shot if we move the basketball.”
Mount Airy has made it to the sectional finals in five of the last six years. The winner of tonight’s game will take on either eight-time defending state champ Bishop McGuinness or Atkins, also from the Northwest Conference.
“I’ve said it all year. I think we play in the best overall conference in the state. The proof is in the playoff results,” Mayo said.