Mount Airy’s girls’ basketball team has no bigger fan this season than Angela Mayfield.
The first-year head coach has watched her team compile a brilliant season that encompassed the Northwest 1A Conference regular-season and tournament championships. She’s witnessed her team pile up huge point totals and send more than a dozen opponents to the mercy rule this season. But she’s always believed they could be even better than they were.
On Saturday, they were just that.
The third round of the NCHSAA state playoffs saw the Lady Bears facing one of the only two teams all season to defeat them, league rival Atkins. The Lady Camels match up exceptionally well with Mount Airy, and gave the Lady Bears fits in the first three meetings, including a 36-32 upset at the end of the regular season in which Atkins harassed them into a 16 percent shooting night.
The playoff showdown went just as Atkins hoped. It was a methodical, half-court game, contested at a pace that favored the Lady Camels. Atkins held Mount Airy to just one 3-pointer all night, and the entire game was dictated on the defensive end.
It was also a 50-27 shellacking, in which Mount Airy advanced to the Elite Eight after holding the Lady Camels to a paltry eight points in the entire second half.
“I told them that this proves we can win without hitting threes,” said Coach Mayfield. “We didn’t hit but one three tonight. Defensively, we made a big difference in the game, and we out-rebounded them by quite a bit.”
The Lady Bears (27-2) are three wins away from claiming the state championship. Their next step along that road will come in the friendly confines of the Howard Finch Gym, where the state’s second-ranked 1A team according to MaxPreps will host third-ranked Murphy on Tuesday night. The Lady Bulldogs (28-2) earned their spot in the state quarterfinals with a 52-45 victory over No. 1 Cherokee, their rivals in the Smoky Mountain Conference, on Saturday night. Murphy is the 10th overall seed in the West Region and the Lady Bears are third.
Coming into Saturday’s game, it was safe to say that Atkins was a team that Mount Airy would have just as soon not seen again. The Lady Camels are tough, talented, and had a dangerous weapon off the bench in 5’9” junior guard Taylor Blakely, who nearly single-handedly brought her team back in the NW1A tourney final last week. Coach Mayfield found the answer to Blakely in her own household. For Showdown IV between the rivals, 5’10” junior Madeline Mayfield was given the assignment to stick to Blakely like glue. After torching the Lady Bears in the first three meetings this season, the younger Mayfield shut her out on Saturday.
“I told her that there was no help, that no matter where (Blakely) was, Madeline was face-guarding her and we were going to limit her touches,” said Coach Mayfield. “We were determined not to let her get the threes that she’s had the first three times.”
Mount Airy came out determined to match Atkins’ toughness and take the fight to the visitors. Mayfield and Asherah Smith opened the game by each driving to the basket for an easy layup. Then Jo Snow drove the lane for two of her own, and Smith missed a close-in shot, grabbed her own rebound and stuck it back for an 8-0 lead after less than three minutes of play.
The Lady Camels adjusted to the Mount Airy tactics and finally got their own offense going. They closed the gap to 13-9 by the end of the first quarter, and then Kayla Chrisp scored the first four points of the second on two free throws and a 15-foot jumper, tying the game at 15 with 6:24 left before intermission. However, the tie didn’t last long, as Shaunae Sawyers caught Atkins napping on the inbounds and scored quickly. Atkins had three possessions in the middle of the quarter in which they were down by one point and could have taken the lead with a basket, but the Lady Camels were denied every time by furious Lady Bear defensive pressure, mostly from Arry Ward and Mayfield. Finally, with 2:30 left before the break, Smith shook her defender and caught a bullet pass from Mayfield at the top of the key. She drained a three — the only Mount Airy trey of the night — to give her team some breathing room at 21-17. The Lady Bears carried a 23-19 lead into the locker room.
“I was really pleased with our defensive effort,” said Coach Mayfield. “We talked about that at halftime. Defensively, we didn’t need to change anything.”
What followed was the finest half of basketball in a season filled with highlights.
Sawyers and Atkins’ Tyler Davenport traded baskets to start the second half. There wouldn’t be another Lady Camel field goal until the fourth quarter. At the 6:33 mark, Sawyers drove the ball to the basket for a score, and then 22 seconds later, she gunned a pass to Mayfield underneath for two more. Atkins coach Louis Lowery called for a break in the action, and Davenport managed to get to the free-throw line and score two for her side, but then Ward answered, and three more scores followed to make it 37-23 with 1:33 left in the quarter. The period ended with Mount Airy already milking clock and Atkins refusing to stretch its defense for fear of the Lady Bears driving it on them.
In the fourth quarter, the Lady Bears got nine free throws in 10 tries from Snow, who spent much of the period forcing Atkins players to chase her out of a delay offense. Ward also got two more baskets when Atkins’ defense broke down underneath. Most of the last four minutes were spent with Mount Airy simply milking the clock and the crowd on its feet in appreciation of the victory.
The Lady Bears had beaten their biggest rival at its own game, and done so decisively.
Snow led the team with 13 points, all but two of them from the line. Sawyers added 10, all from the field, with Mayfield, Ward and Smith all accounting for eight each. Chrisp led Atkins (22-7) with nine, while Daia Dawkins added eight.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.