It was 71 degrees outside at game time, but inside the Howard Finch Gym, there was a winter storm warning in effect.
The top-ranked and top-seeded Lady Bears were facing a tough opponent in Alleghany’s Lady Trojans, but the visitors were left positively Snow-blind in a wild first half that all but decided who would advance to the third round of the 1A state playoffs even though 16 minutes of basketball were still to be played.
Senior point guard Jo Snow torched the visitors for 23 first-half points, outscoring the entire Alleghany team by two, and her team cruised to a 59-39 victory Thursday night.
The Lady Bears will host Highlands, the co-champion of the Little Smoky Mountain Conference, on Saturday at a time to be announced. The Highlanders (16-11) beat Blue Ridge Early College 61-51 in Tuesday’s first round and then downed Lincoln Charter 50-45 on Thursday to reach the third round.
Mount Airy (23-2 overall) didn’t face Alleghany during the regular season, but several of the the Lady Bears did get a look at them when both teams played in the Christmas tournament at Galax. The Lady Trojans (18-11) entered the tournament as the state’s 14th-ranked 1A team, and presented match-up challenges for Mount Airy in the form of 6’4” senior center Alexis Hoppers and 6’0” junior forward Cameron Hawkins, both taller than any Lady Bear.
“We knew what we would be up against,” said Mount Airy head coach Angela Mayfield. “They’re a well-coached, hard-nosed team, and we knew that 55 (Hoppers) was going to give us some issues. She’s tough to defend. I thought we did a nice job of adjusting, running the floor and a nice job on the offensive boards.”
Alleghany knew where its strengths lay in a showdown with the defending state champions, and the Lady Trojans went inside early and often. Of their 13 first-quarter points, seven were scored by Hoppers and four by Hawkins. Unfortunately for Alleghany, the Lady Bears also knew where their advantages lay.
If the visitors were strong inside, the hosts were strong outside. Shaunae Sawyers drove to the basket three times in the opening quarter and was a perfect 6-6 from the free-throw line. As for Snow, she did whatever she wanted. Just 66 seconds into the game, Snow drove to the basket for her first points. Later one, she stole the ball twice, leading to easy scores for the Lady Bears, and with time just under a minute in the opening period, knocked down a 3-pointer from near the top of the key. Mount Airy led 22-13 at the end of the first quarter.
“I thought we had a really good conference tournament and I’m not so sure I like this layoff,” said Coach Mayfleld, commenting on the revamped 1A playoff format that awards the top seeds a first-round bye. “But I thought out our girls came out ready to play.”
Madeline Mayfield opened the second quarter with her second steal of the night, which she tossed ahead to Snow for two points. About 20 seconds later, Snow beat everyone to a rebound and blew by everyone on a coast-to-coast trip. Hoppers stopped the bleeding for the Lady Trojans by getting inside and scoring, but then Bailey Flippen got involved in the larceny, stealing the ball and throwing long to Sawyers for two. The Lady Bears were threatening to run away with it at 29-15, and Alleghany coach Kayla Collins called a quick time-out.
When the teams returned to the floor, the pace slowed down and Hawkins hit a jumper in the lane for her team. But Alyssa Cox responded for Mount Airy by driving the ball to the basket for an and-one layup. The quarter ended with baskets by Hoppers and Hawkins sandwiched between a Snow 3-pointer and a drive to the basket right before the buzzer. The halftime score was Jo Snow 23, Alleghany 21, Everyone Else 14.
The Lady Bears played the second half in cruise mode, with the starting five not on the floor as a unit most of the time. Hoppers had four quick points to start the third quarter for the Lady Trojans, but a Sawyers three and a long jumper by Arry Ward meant that her team was even further behind. Snow didn’t score again until Sawyers stole the ball near halfcourt and passed to her running toward the basket with 2:35 left in the period. Collins spent a second time-out right after that, and Abigail Keesling responded with a 3-pointer to cut the margin to 15 points, but the quarter ended on a stickback by Tatyana Long and a hook shot by Madeline Mayfield to make it 50-31.
In the final period, Keesling hit a 3-pointer with 4:57 left to pull Alleghany within 52-38, but that was as close as the Trojans ever got.
For Alleghany, Hoppers had 14, Hawkins 10 and Keesling 10. Coach Mayfield thought her team did a nice job limiting the damage done by the Lady Trojan post players, a challenge that they will keep facing as they advance deeper into the postseason.
“We knew they would challenge us,” she said. “I know with some of the teams we’ll face down the road, we’re going to see some post players like we’re not used to seeing in our conference.”
Snow ended the game with a season-high 28 points, matching the second-best outing of her career. Sawyers added 13, Cox and Madeline Mayfield five each, Ward four, and Asherah Smith and Long two each.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.