Mount Airy’s toughest opponent in the first half of Saturday’s third-round state playoff game wasn’t Highlands. It was themselves.
The top-ranked Lady Bears were never in any danger of losing to the Little Smoky Mountain Conference champions, but the team forced just enough bad passes and too just enough ill-advised shots that the inevitable rout didn’t occur until the second half.
A 25-2 explosion in the third quarter broke the game open and the Lady Bears cruised to a 56-23 win, with a running clock for the entire final period.
“We were forcing things, taking some crazy shots, and we weren’t playing as well as we could on offense,” said Lady Bears head coach Angela Mayfield. “We talked about that at halftime. In the second half, we got a little better about that.”
Mount Airy, now 24-2 on the season, is three wins away from successfully defending its 1A state title. The Lady Bears’ next stop will be their final home game of the 2017-18 season, at home against Mountain Valley 1A/2A Conference runner-up East Wilkes on Tuesday night. The Lady Cardinals (23-4), the MVC’s top 1A team and the fourth seed in the West, held off Chatham Central 58-53 in another Saturday night game. The winner advances to the regional final in either Greensboro or Winston-Salem next weekend.
Mount Airy started a bit slowly on Saturday, although some of that can be credited to the play of the Lady Highlanders. Highlands (16-12) won the tip and held the ball without attempting a shot, clearly trying set a slow early pace. However, Madeline Mayfield stole the ball and took it the other way for a layup after exactly a minute of play. It was 3-0 when Highlands’ Jordan Carrier hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at the 5:53 mark, but Shaunae Sawyers responded with one of her own, and the Lady Bears led for the rest of the night.
A three by Asherah Smith and a stickback by Alyssa Cox made it 13-6 at the end of the first quarter. This was the start of a fitful 19-0 run by Mount Airy that lasted until the 2:39 mark of the second, when Highlands’ Hannah Holt stopped the bleeding. The Lady Bears committed several turnovers during that stretch, but stood tall on defense and the visitors could not get a decent look at the basket.
Tatyana Long started the second period with a layup 36 seconds in. Over the next several minutes, multiple steals by Cox and Bailey Flippen led to fastbreak points. As time ran under four minutes, Jo Snow had a trifecta of her own, stealing the ball and throwing long to Cox for an assist, then grabbing the rebound on the next Lady Highlander possession and going coast-to-coast, and then hitting a 3-pointer from the right baseline to make it 27-6 with 2:55 to play in the first half. The Lady Bears went into the break with a 29-12 lead.
At halftime, Coach Mayfield encouraged her players to be a little more patient on offense, and when her team listened, Highlands was through.
Sawyers started the third period with a three from the left wing. Snow followed with a steal, and threw long to Smith for an and-one layup. Smith scored again off a fastbreak just seconds later, and then again a minute later off a full-court pass from Snow for a 39-12 lead.
Unfortunately for Highlands, Snow wasn’t done. She grabbed a rebound and dashed to the other side of the court, then passed out to Sawyers on the right baseline for a 3-pointer and a 30-point lead with 4:37 left in the period. Sawyers was the playmaker herself on the next score, leading Smith on a fastbreak for two more. Highlands’ Jordan Carrier hit a 15-footer to give her team its first points of the second half, but the Lady Bears kept pouring it on. On the next possession, the Lady Highlanders failed to rotate onto Flippen, so she drained a 3-pointer. Cox tacked on a free throw and a putback to make it 50-14, then stole the ball near midcourt and tossed head to Madeline Mayfield for a deuce. Seconds later, she was at it again, making another steal and getting the ball out to Snow, who scored with three seconds left in the period.
A tremendous 25-2 third quarter had given the Lady Bears a commanding 54-14 lead.
The teams played out the string in the final period, with Coach Mayfield pulling all her starters a few minutes into the fourth quarter.
Smith led Mount Airy with 14 points on a night when the points were well-distributed. Snow added 12, Sawyers 10, Cox nine, Mayfield four, Flippen three, Long two and Cydney Boyer two.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.