Jo Snow’s outside shooting prowess gave Mount Airy an early lead. Her quickness gave the Lady Bears the lead back with the game on the line.
And her basketball IQ ultimately put her team one more victory away from playing for the state championship.
Snow stole a Murphy inbounds pass with 5.2 seconds remaining in Tuesday night’s state quarterfinal showdown with the Smoky Mountain Conference powerhouse, and dribbled out of the clock on a heart-stopping 40-39 victory that made the Lady Bears one of four local teams to all advance to the West Regional final on the same night.
The 5’3” junior point guard had given her team the lead when she drove the middle of the lane and hit a 6-foot runner with about 10 seconds remaining. The Lady Bulldogs, who had led for much of the fourth quarter, called a quick time-out and had 9.2 seconds in which to try to retake the lead. However, there was quite a bit of strategy involved on both sides. The Lady Bears had two fouls to give, and were prepared to use them.
“We told them to let them get the ball inbounds, let them dribble it a time or two, and then try to steal it,” said Mount Airy coach Angela Mayfield. “You never know if you might get a steal, but if not, then foul. That was definitely our strategy at the end with the two fouls to give, and the kids did a great job of executing that.”
With 5.6 seconds left, Shaunae Sawyers managed to give one of those fouls with Murphy still stuck on the wrong side of the time-line. The Lady Bulldogs (28-3) would now have to inbound the ball from near midcourt and set up a shot with scarce time left. Snow figured out, based on what she had seen during the game, where the inbounder would likely go.
“I could already kind of tell where she was going to try to throw it,” said Snow.
The play went off just as Snow had anticipated. The ball was passed about 10 feet to the inbounder’s right, and Snow dashed in front of the would-be recipient and grabbed the ball untouched, then had the presence of mind to take herself, and the ball, away from anyone wearing a black jersey. The game was over before any of the Lady Bulldogs could commit a foul, not that it would have mattered, since Murphy had fouls to give as well.
“I could tell that she wanted to come back out (into the backcourt) and get the ball, so I just went on the wing and got the pass,” Snow said.
The game, which pitted the state’s first- and third-ranked teams according to MaxPreps.com, seemed like it might easily go the Lady Bears’ way early on. Mount Airy, which had hit just one 3-point shot in its third-round win over Atkins, hit five in the first quarter against the Lady Bulldogs. Snow opened the game with two threes, sandwiched around one from Murphy’s Aubrey Clapsaddle. Then Asherah Smith knocked down one at the 5:10 mark for a 9-3 lead. Murphy closed to within 12-9 with 1:28 left after back-to-back baskets by Sydni Addison and Elle Martin, but then Megan Fleming knocked down one from the left baseline and Snow connected from NBA range with 12 seconds left in the opening period, which ended with the Lady Bears on top 18-9.
A crucial turning point in the game came with 6:30 left in the second quarter, when Snow picked up her second personal foul with Mount Airy leading 20-9. Coach Mayfield took no chances and held her out for the remainder of the second quarter, a situation was made even worse by Smith also getting into foul trouble later in the quarter. Mount Airy spent the rest of the first half just trying to tread water and stay in front of Murphy, which found a reliable source of offense in Addison, a precocious freshman who scored nine points in two and a half minutes to help get her team within two points late in the period. Sawyers sank two free throws with 43 seconds left to give Mount Airy a 27-23 halftime lead.
However, things got worse for the Lady Bears in the third quarter. Murphy, knowing Snow would return, began mixing up its defenses and went after the Mount Airy playmaker with a triangle-and-two that often included two of the team’s athletic six-footers. Against this type of defense, the Lady Bears were forced into a methodical, plodding style of play that favored Murphy — and it took them some time to find answers of their own.
“It was the hardest defense I’ve ever played against,” Snow said. “She (6’3” junior Jessica Beckner) was so tall in the middle, and it was hard to move the ball around.”
In the meantime, the Lady Bulldogs grinded their way into a 29-all tie on a basket by Martin with 3:14 left in the third, and then took their first lead on a layup by Emma Stroup with 42 seconds to go. Sarah Lankford hit a four-footer from the baseline with 13 seconds left in the third, and the teams were left with eight minutes to go for a berth in the regional final, deadlocked at 31.
“That was probably one of the worst offensive quarters we’ve had all season in the third quarter,” said Coach Mayfield. “To be honest, our body language didn’t look too good. But our girls sucked it up and found a way to win.”
Snow hit two free throws 38 seconds into the fourth quarter, but Stroup scored to tie it, and Addison scored at 5:39 to give Murphy a two-point lead. When Beckner got inside 35 seconds later, Murphy led 37-33 and Coach Mayfield was forced to signal for time-out.
But Snow wasn’t ready to start track season yet. With 3:52 remaining, she hit a 24-footer to bring the Lady Bears back within one. Addison nailed a seven-foot jumper 17 seconds later. The next two minutes saw furious defense on both ends of the floor. It wasn’t until the 1:08 mark that Murphy blinked and Megan Fleming got open underneath for two points, bringing her team back within one at 39-38.
It was the culmination of a memorable sequence for the senior, who had come back into the game a few minutes earlier due to more foul trouble for Smith. In a three-minute span, Fleming grabbed two offensive rebounds against much taller Murphy players, and then slipped her defender to score that key basket. After she scored, Coach Mayfield signaled for time, and the Lady Bears steeled themselves to get a steal or force a turnover, trailing 39-38.
With 43.3 seconds remaining, the Lady Bulldogs threw a pass away against heavy defensive pressure, and it was Mount Airy’s ball with a chance to retake the lead.
Murphy played with the same defensive intensity, and once again, the Lady Bears couldn’t find an avenue to the basket. Finally, with 13 seconds left, Snow decided to try to create her own shot. She split two defenders and let a shot fly before the interior defense could collapse on her. The ball hit off the backboard, went through the net, and pandemonium ensued on the home side of the court.
“I was really looking for the three, but I realized (the defender) was all over me from when I hit the last one,” said Snow. “So I went for the runner, and it banked in. I was like, ‘hey, that will work.’”
Snow had one more play to make, and with that, the Lady Bears are two wins away from where no Mount Airy girls team has ever been.
She led Mount Airy with 17 points. Rounding out the scoring for the Lady Bears were Smith with eight, Fleming with five, Sawyers and Lankford with four each, and Arry Ward with two. Addison led Murphy with 15, and was followed by Beckner with nine and Stroup and Martin with six each.
Mount Airy (28-2) will play Avery County (24-7) for the West Regional title on Saturday at either Fleming Gymnasium at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro or the Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem. They will find out today what venue they will be assigned to.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.