A banner year for the Mount Airy basketball program is about to face its biggest challenge of the season.
The boys and girls’ basketball teams at Mount Airy are 28-3 combined this winter, but the Granite Bears will face a school experiencing similar success in Winston-Salem Prep on Friday night.
The Phoenix’s two squads are 19-8, but one reason Winston-Salem Prep doesn’t possess the kind of dominant record that Mount Airy has is the level of competition. The Phoenix have played powerhouse 3A and 4A teams during its non-conference slate.
However, none of those contests match the importance of tonight’s Northwest Conference showdown with the Granite Bears. All four teams are undefeated in league play, and whoever escapes Friday with a victory will have the upper hand in the battle for a top-seed in the NCHSAA playoffs at the end of the season.
Tipoff at 6:30
The Lady Bears (14-2, 4-0) come into their bout with the Phoenix riding a four-game winning streak that includes an average margin of victory of 38.3 points.
Winston-Salem Prep (11-3, 4-0) swept the two-game series against Mount Airy last season. All five starters are back from last year’s state championship team, but coach Howard Mayo believes this year’s group of Lady Bears are confident they can rewrite the script.
“The second time we played (Prep), we had a lead against them into the second half,” Mayo said. “Our girls know that if we do what we’re supposed to, we can definitely play with them. We just have to do a better job this year of finishing the ball game.”
The Lady Phoenix are very athletic and they love to apply pressure and get out in transition. Coach Mayo notes that Prep combines its athleticism with a high basketball IQ, and it will be important for his team to match the Phoenix’s acumen on the court.
“The key for us is to be fundamentally sound,” Mayo said. “We can’t telegraph our passes and we have to use ball fakes against their pressure. When they shoot, we have to box out.”
If Mount Airy can avoid turnovers, Jo Snow and Ayano Shelton could continue their season-long success scoring the basketball on Friday night. Snow leads the Lady Bears, averaging 15.8 points per game, and Shelton isn’t far behind at 14.6.
Winston-Salem Prep uses a balanced attack on offense with four girls averaging at least seven points. Senior Mychala Wolfe tops her team at 10.5 ppg.
Mayo thinks his team will have a good chance to pull out a victory if they can compete against Prep’s balance and find a third scorer outside of Shelton and Snow to help carry the load.
“It could be a number of girls,” Mayo said. “We’ve had six different players score at least 10 points this season. If we can just get one to step up, it will make things a lot easier on us.”
Tipoff at 8:00
Unlike the Lady Bears, Mount Airy’s boys were able to close out a win against Winston-Salem Prep last season with a 47-43 victory at home. The Granite Bears are now searching for their first road victory over their conference rivals.
“I think just having that win at least once allows these guys to know that not only can they do it, but it’s very plausible,” Mount Airy coach Levi Goins said. “I think before last year’s win, it was difficult for them to see that.”
If Mount Airy (14-1, 4-0) is going to earn a second consecutive victory over the Phoenix (8-5, 4-0), it will have to contain 6-foot-7 junior Zaire Williams. The versatile forward can do damage both inside and on the perimeter while averaging a near double-double with 13.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Mount Airy plans to use a wide variety of defensive schemes with the hopes of containing Williams.
However, the Phoenix possess a ton of depth on their roster, especially at the guard positions. Goins believes the talent on the roster complements the athletic big man in Williams very nicely.
“They’re always athletic, always quick,” Goins said. “Williams is the focal point of their offense, and they’ve got some really great guards. But the thing that Coach (Andre) Gould does, if one guy isn’t playing well, he has someone on the bench who can fill-in and step up. They lose nothing defensively when he brings in guys off the bench.”
One of those great guards for Winston-Salem Prep is sophomore Daivien Williamson, who is second on the team with 12.8 points per game.
It will be imperative that guards Will Sparks, Ryan Graham and Caleb Arrington limit Mount Airy’s turnovers on Friday. The Granite Bears will be content in an up-and-down contest with the athletic Phoenix, but only if they can hold on to the basketball.
Of course, the Bears will rely on senior forward Clay Mounce on offense. His 23.6 ppg average is 14th best across the state of North Carolina.
Reach Jackson at 415-4702 and on twitter @jacksonfuller16