It was a “Clash of the Titans” to open the season in the Howard Finch Gym on Tuesday night, in more ways than one. And it more than lived up to its billing.
The defending 1A state champion Lady Bears had the court all to themselves, with the boys still getting ready after football season ended on Saturday. Their first opponent of the season was none other than the Titans of West Forsyth High School, currently ranked No. 1 in the state by MaxPreps, regardless of classification.
If they’re really No. 1, then Mount Airy is No. 2. The Lady Bears matched this 4A powerhouse basket for basket for 40 minutes before the Titans pulled away in the last two minutes of the second overtime for a 62-55 victory.
West Forsyth, which improved to 7-0, had won its first six games in succession by an average of 30.7 points. On Tuesday, the Lady Bears had every reason to think they should have beaten them.
“It’s a great way to jump into the fire. What a barnburner to start our season. Of course, you’re never happy to come out on the losing side,” said Mount Airy head coach Angela Mayfield. “I thought we battled well, but at times we just didn’t make the best decisions on the floor. We had opportunities with a lead, and we didn’t take care of the ball like we needed to.”
Mount Airy, playing its season opener after 42 days of practice, was right there with the visitors throughout the contest. The game featured 11 ties and 13 lead changes, the last one coming when Destiny Griffin scored underneath and converted a bonus free throw for a 56-55 Titan lead with 2:01 left in the second overtime. The Lady Bears, who by this time were playing without one starter and with both its starting guards banged up, was finally out of bullets. West Forsyth’s Callie Scheier, who led everyone with 23 points, made a short jumper with 56 seconds remaining, and then the Titans made four more free throws in the final 33 seconds.
The home team had its biggest lead of the game when Shaunae Sawyers snagged a crosscourt pass from Alyssa Cox with nine seconds left in the third quarter and hit a 3-pointer that put the Lady Bears in front 38-30. But West Forsyth’s Amira Williams answered with a layup at the buzzer, and her team continued the rally in the fourth quarter, eventually closing the gap to 39-38 before Sawyers and Jo Snow led Asherah Smith and then Madeline Mayfield in transition for back-to-back baskets and a 43-38 edge. A layup by Scheier, followed by a 3-pointer from Shakira Baskerville, tied the game at 43 with 3:17 to play. Each team had chances in the stretch run, but was flustered by the other’s defense.
Scheier appeared to have given her team its first lead since 15-14 when she made a free throw with 10.9 seconds left, but the Titans were called for a lane violation. On Mount Airy’s possession, Snow, who had left the game with severe cramping just a few minutes earlier, stepped on the out-of-bounds line. The teams went to overtime tied at 45.
During the first extra session, Smith, who led the Lady Bears with 20 points, fouled out of the game. Still, Mount Airy had a chance to win the game, getting a steal in the last half-minute down 51-50. Sawyers was fouled with 2.3 seconds left but could make just one of two free throws.
Cox was filling in for Smith by this time and twice gave Mount Airy the lead in the second overtime, the last time with 2:13 to play at 55-53. It was an impressive return to the hardwood for the junior, better known as a champion golfer, who had sat out the 2016-17 basketball season.
After Griffin made the three-point play to put her team back on top, the Lady Bears simply couldn’t get a shot to fall.
“They’re one of the top teams in the state, well coached and they get after it,” said Mayfield. “It was a great test for us and it showed us what we’re made of. We’re going to move on from this, get better and get ready for the rest of the season.
“We talked a lot about keeping our composure and moving on to the next play. Defensively, we were tough. Rebounding concerned me, but we did what we needed to there.”
Sawyers added 15 points and Snow 12 for Mount Airy, which hosts South Iredell on Friday night in what will also be the first game for the boys. Mayfield added six and Cox four. For the Titans, Griffin and Williams had nine each and Baskerville seven.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.