Most anyone who has watched Mount Airy Lady Bear basketball this season would agree that they are quite entertaining.
One notable exception would be North Surry head coach Shane Slate. The Lady Hounds’ mentor doesn’t enjoy Lady Bear basketball, not one bit. In his team’s first two meetings with Mount Airy, his team too often played at Mount Airy’s breakneck tempo, and the result was two decisive losses.
Thursday night’s championship game of the Lady Bear Holiday Classic was a different story. In an exciting battle that went down to the final seconds, North Surry dictated the pace of the game for about 25 of the 32 minutes of play, and pulled out a 53-50 victory over the previously unbeaten host team.
“We get in trouble when we get into a hurry,” said Slate, whose team has three six-footers in its rotation and plays much better in a halfcourt game. “I was disappointed with the way we’d played in the first two games of the tournament. Offensively, we were not patient at times. Tonight, we were more patient and as a result, we were better offensively.”
Mikaela Johnson hit the game-winner for North Surry (9-5) with 24 seconds remaining, then scored the clincher right before the buzzer on a run-out after a missed shot by the Lady Bears. The game featured two ties and four lead changes in the last 4:39.
Mount Airy (8-1) led 15-8 a minute into the second quarter, but then the Lady Hounds outscored Mount Airy 28-8 over the remainder of the first half and the first five and a half minutes of the third quarter. North Surry took its first lead with 2:29 left in the second, when Elle Sutphin hit a six-foot jumper and drew a foul. Her bonus free throw put the visitors on top 19-18, and they led 23-20 at the break.
The early part of the second half was a tour de force led by the Lady Hounds’ inside players, who dominated the middle while North Surry dictated a half-court tempo on both ends of the floor. Sutphin hit a short jumper with 4:29 left to give North a double-digit lead at 32-22, but even a timeout by Lady Bear coach Angela Mayfield couldn’t turn the tide. The Lady Hounds pushed their lead to 36-23 on a short jumper by Tiana Shuff with 3:31 left in the period.
Then Mount Airy, the state’s ninth-ranked team according to MaxPreps.com, finally flipped the script. Jo Snow drove the lane for a scoop shot and drew a foul. She sank the bonus free throw. On the Lady Bears’ next possession, Sarah Lankford shook her defender at the top of the key and sank a 3-pointer. With 1:57 left, the North Surry lead was chopped to seven. The teams traded scores, but then right before the third-quarter buzzer, Mount Airy rejected a shot on one end and ignited a fastbreak, which led to Asherah Smith scoring to reduce North’s lead to 38-33.
The Lady Bears had the momentum and were forcing the Lady Hounds, once again, to play at an uncomfortable pace. Smith scored sank a pair of free throws 19 seconds into the fourth quarter. North came up empty on the other end, and the hosts were again out and running, with Ward scoring off a fastbreak. Johnson stopped the bleeding with a basket for the Lady Hounds, but then Shaunae Sawyers came out running and fed Smith underneath, tying the game at 40 with 5:39 to play.
“That was a stretch in the game where we were a little bit impatient on offense,” Slate said. “That hurt us. That is a key for us. If we will be patient on offense and play to our strengths, I think we’re tough to handle and we can score plenty of points. We want to attack the basket…but sometimes we just throw up a shot, and that’s not good.”
Mount Airy took a three-point lead when Snow drove the lane for a bucket and a foul 28 seconds later, sinking the free throw to complete a 20-4 run. For the next few possessions, the teams traded blows, with Sawyers and Snow swapping scores with Sutphin and Johnson. With 3:07 to play, the Lady Bears led 47-44 and had the ball. However, the visitors stepped up their defense, and Mount Airy failed to get a good shot on any of its next three possessions. North tied the game at 49 on a free throw by Johnson with 2:17 left and then regained the lead on a fastbreak layup of their own by Jessy Nichols with 1:53 to play.
With 48 seconds left, the Lady Bears deliberately fouled Sutphin, who missed the front end of a one-and-one. Nine seconds later, Madeline Mayfield took a 3-pointer from the left baseline and sank it, giving her team the lead back at 50-49. With everyone in the gym on their feet or at least cheering loudly, the Lady Hounds calmly brought the ball back up the court and found Johnson on the block. She scored with 24 seconds left and drew a foul in the process. However, she missed the free throw, and Mount Airy had a chance to retake the lead and win the championship.
The Lady Hounds played excellent defense on the final possession and the Lady Bears had to settle for a deep 3-pointer from Snow with seven seconds left. The junior guard’s aim was just off the mark, and the long rebound caromed out to one of the Lady Hounds, who tossed ahead to Johnson running out. She laid it in right before the buzzer to end the game.
Johnson led North Surry with 17 points and 16 rebounds, including nine of her team’s 15 fourth quarter points. Sutphin carried much of the load for the Lady Hounds in the first half, when she had 11. She added six more in the second half to match Johnson as her team’s high scorer with 17. Nichols added seven and Shuff six.
“Our goal was to get better and get ready for the conference, and I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress,” said Slate, whose team has now won five in a row. “We still have some things we can be better at.”
Snow and Smith tied as the high scorers for the Lady Bears with 15 points each.
Mount Airy returns to Northwest 1A Conference action on Tuesday at home against Winston-Salem Prep. North Surry will begin its defense of the Western Piedmont 2A crown that same night at home against West Stokes.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.