Since the season began and it became clear that Mount Airy’s girls basketball team could light up scoreboards seemingly at will, Lady Bear head coach Angela Mayfield has stressed to her team that they needed to do the ‘little things’ in order to beat top teams — that defense, rebounding and playing smart were the team’s ticket to victory when the shots weren’t falling.
Facing another of the state’s best teams, Northwest 1A Conference rival Atkins, for the second time in eight days, the Lady Bears heeded their coach’s advance, and claimed the conference tournament title with a 57-53 victory on Friday night.
Mount Airy, which heads into the NCHSAA playoffs with a 24-2 overall record and is ranked No. 3 in the state by MaxPreps and fifth by NCPreps.com, is a likely No. 2 overall seed for the state playoffs and will be at home for the first few rounds of postseason action. The Lady Camels, who held Mount Airy to 16 percent shooting in beating the Lady Bears 36-32 last week, dropped to 19-6 but will be a very dangerous high seed among the conference runners-up, hopefully in a different part of the draw from Mount Airy.
“They’re a tough team, and they always come ready to play physical, and they have a lot of offensive firepower and are well-coached,” said coach Angela Mayfield, who said she wouldn’t miss the Lady Camels if they didn’t see them a fourth time this season.
The Lady Bears led for much of the night, but could never put the visitors away. Although the game was played in the friendly confines of Howard Finch Gymnasium, the Lady Camels brought a strong contingent of fans, and also appeared to have the support of Winston-Salem Prep supporters who’d come for the boys’ final. Of course, there were plenty of Lady Bears supporters on hand, too. Everyone who came got what they came for — a game befitting of a championship.
With time running under 10 minutes, it looked like the regular-season champs were ready to deliver a knockout blow. With 1:41 remaining in the third quarter, Arry Ward laid one in and drew a foul. She missed the free throw, but teammate Sarah Lankford slipped in behind an Atkins player, grabbed the rebound and put it back in herself, giving Mount Airy its largest lead of the night at 44-33.
It was 44-35 going to the fourth, but the Lady Camels weren’t ready to give in. Just over a minute into the final period, Atkins hauled out its secret weapon, reserve guard Taylor Blakney. She dialed long distance to pull the Lady Camels within six. Then came another one of those little things. With 5:50 left and the Lady Beats unable to hit anything, Asherah Smith let fly from long range and missed. However, the junior had been following her shot all along, and she out-hustled two Atkins players to the rebound. Then, almost in the same motion, she went to the basket and stuck it back in. It was huge when the Lady Camels scored the next five, including Blakney’s second three with 4:25 to play, and pulled within 46-43.
“We knew that 21 was dangerous from three,” said Coach Mayfield. “We had some possessions where we shot too fast and didn’t take of the ball in there, and we need to get better about that.”
The Lady Camels had a chance to get closer when Mount Airy threw the ball away on its next possession out of a timeout, but the Lady Bears hunkered down defensively and kept Atkins from scoring. Then Mount Airy’s not-so-secret weapon, Shaunae Sawyers, found herself unguarded at the top of the key and let fly. The ball hit nothing but net, and it was 49-43 with 3:36 remaining. Atkins’ Tyler Davenport struck quickly at the other end, but Sawyers was charging toward tournament MVP honors. She led a Mount Airy fastbreak the other way, dished to Madeline Mayfield underneath, and got the two points back. Blakney answered with a 25-foot rainbow to pull her team within three again. Atkins then had a second chance to pull within one or tie, but the Lady Bears were steel, and wouldn’t let it happen. With 1:53 remaining, Mayfield again finished a break. Davenport and Jo Snow traded a pair of free throws, and then here came Blakney again, dialing long distance with 43 seconds left and pulling the Lady Camels within 55-53.
Then came the little things again.
Sawyers was fouled and made one of two, but again, Lankford snuck in and grabbed a rebound. She ended up going to the line herself, but missed both free throws with 14 seconds left. This time, Mayfield gave her defender the slip. She didn’t get the rebound, but she forced a tie-up, and the Lady Bears had the possession arrow.
“I was really, really proud of how we gutted it up and did the little things when we had to in order to win,” said Coach Mayfield. “We have really been focusing on that in the week leading up to this game. In the playoffs, doing the little things right is going to help us win.”
With 10 seconds left, Smith made the first of two free throws, then missed the second to start the clock with her team ahead by four. Time was almost expired by the time Atkins got a shot off, which missed anyway.
The Lady Camels led 13-11 after one quarter of play, but Mount Airy got hot and pulled out to a 25-17 lead in the second quarter, only to see Atkins answer with a 9-0 run and retake the lead. Madeline Mayfield tied it at 26 at the break with a free throw.
Sawyers led Mount Airy for the second straight game, scoring 17 points. Snow added 13, Smith 10, and Mayfield nine.
Davenport led the Lady Camels with 19 points. Blakney had 14 and Destiny Napper added nine.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.