MOUNT PLEASANT — East Surry’s girls went farther than any other local team did in order to compete in a holiday tournament.
Luckily for the Lady Cardinals, their trip to Cabarrus County resulted in some new hardware for the school’s trophy case.
East Surry dominated the field in the Laurie Ann Cruse Christmas Classic last week, opening the tournament with a 66-27 rout of Albemarle and then downing Cox Mill (49-31) and Concord (61-42) on the following two nights in order to become one of three local girls’ teams to bring home a championship as a belated Christmas gift.
The Lady Cardinals entered the eight-team tournament unheralded, having gotten a late start to their season due to football and then dropping several highly competitive games to good teams before entering Mount Pleasant with a 3-6 record. In fact, their first opponent, Albemarle, was heavily favored after starting the season 9-2.
It didn’t take long for people to realize that the Bulldogs were no match for East Surry. The Lady Cardinals held a 16-9 lead at the end of the first quarter and then blitzed Albemarle 22-5 in the second to lead 38-14 at the half. East Surry shot 57 percent from the field, 5-8 from behind the arc, and committed just 14 turnovers for the entire game.
Also notable from this game was something that is seldom seen in a 1A high school girls’ game — a triple-double. Senior Bethany Clayton, who ended up being named as the tournament MVP, had 17 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists.
Madison Bowman had 12 points, Sarah Mann 11, Morgan Smith nine and Katlyn Creed eight for East Surry. As for Albemarle, it won its last two games of the tournament.
The Lady Cardinals marched on to Thursday’s semifinals and another game that they weren’t expected to win. Cox Mill, a 3A school, had blasted host Mount Pleasant by 34 points in the opening round.
By early in the third quarter, everyone in Cabarrus County was wondering why in the heck someone didn’t lose the invitation sent to East Surry coach Caleb Gilley.
East held the Chargers to just five points in the first quarter and already led by seven. Before the night was out, Clayton was flirting with another triple-double; she had 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in this one.
Cox Mill matched the Lady Cardinals point for point in the second quarter and trailed 23-16 at the half. But East Surry short-circuited the Chargers for good in the third quarter, outscoring them 12-4 to take command of the game at 35-20. The Lady Cardinals continued to pull ahead in the final period and earned their spot in the championship game.
Bowman and Creed each had 10 points for East Surry against Cox Mill. Freshman Dasia Lambert had six steals to go with her five rebounds. Mann blocked three shots.
Friday’s opponent in the final was another 3A team, Concord, which had pulled out thrillers against West Stanly and Gray Stone Day to get to the championship round. But the Spiders weren’t anything that East Surry couldn’t handle, either.
Lambert, the defensive standout of the win over Cox Mill, showed her stuff on the offensive end against Concord, with a dozen points to go with four steals. But the worst problem for the Spiders was that the deuce was loose again — number 2, Bethany Clayton, annihilated Concord to the tune of 16 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.
Concord made the mistake of trying to engage the Lady Cardinals in a shootout. The Spiders were making shots early on, but East Surry refused to get away from its own game. The Lady Cards would methodically work their offense until a switch led to a bad matchup, or someone was out of position and left them with an open shot. East started to gradually pull away and led 21-14 after one quarter of play.
Like Cox Mill, Concord hung in for a while and trailed just 34-25 at the break. In the second half, Clayton was dominant on both ends of the floor, scoring as she pleased and frequently grabbing defensive rebounds that limited the Spiders to one-and-done when they had the ball. East Surry had a 20-point edge by late in the third quarter and cruised to the victory from there.
Clayton won the fourth tournament MVP title of her remarkable athletic career as a Lady Cardinal. The three-time MVP of the Northwest 1A Conference volleyball tournament earned her first individual hardware in the sport of basketball.
Mann and Sheridan Craft each had nine points for East Surry, and Mann also grabbed seven rebounds.
East Surry’s national power ranking on MaxPreps.com soared 105 spots as a result of their performance in the tournament.
The Lady Cardinals will try to keep their momentum going on Wednesday night, when the Cruse Classic champs seek to avenge a loss to East Wilkes. The other Lady Cards (10-2), who beat East Surry 52-46 in Ronda on Nov. 30, will come to Pilot Mountain for the return match.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.