Mount Airy and East Wilkes high schools are just 32 miles apart, but the girls’ basketball teams from the respective schools have not met since all of the current players were in elementary school.
That all changes tonight, when the top-ranked Lady Bears (24-2) host the Lady Cardinals (23-4), the top 1A team in the split Mountain Valley 1A/2A Conference, for the right to play in the West Regional final on Saturday.
It’s no surprise to anyone that Mount Airy has gotten this far. The Lady Bears are the defending 1A state champions and returned all five starters from last year’s team, which posted a 30-2 record. This season, the team has never dropped below No. 2 in the MaxPreps 1A rankings, and its only two losses came in the fourth quarter or overtime in two battles with West Forsyth, which is playing tonight for a spot in the 4A West Regional final.
East Wilkes was an up-and-coming team during the 2017 season, posting a 20-8 record and losing to Atkins in the second round of the playoffs with a roster that included no seniors. This year, the Lady Cardinals lost just four times during the regular season: twice to league rival North Wilkes (80-65 and 65-54), once to Surry Central (44-38) and to Alleghany in the semifinals of the MVC Tournament (51-34). However, East Wilkes also complied several quality wins during the season, beating East Surry, Wilkes Central and Alleghany twice each and Forbush once. In the playoffs, the Lady Cardinals, ranked fourth in the final MaxPreps rankings, drew the fourth seed in the West and beat Hayesville 51-34 in the second round after opening with a bye. On Saturday, East Wilkes beat Chatham Central’s Lady Bears 58-53 to earn their date with a second set of Lady Bears.
This year, East Wilkes has four seniors in its lineup, led by 5’11” post player Alexis Pardue. The Lady Cardinals have three players taller than any of the Lady Bears, including six-foot junior Lakyn Mathis, who helped her team come from behind against Chatham Central with 15 points. Seniors Gracie Brown and Lauren Johnson, at 5’3” and 5’5”, respectively, make up the backcourt.
The two teams last played one another on December 27, 2011, in the opening round of a four-team holiday tournament at West Wilkes High School. The Lady Bears won 65-60, behind a dominant effort from their backcourt of seniors Jordan Hiatt (20 points) and Danielle Williams (16).
While the names have changed, Mount Airy will certainly be hoping for big outings out of its current backcourt of senior Jo Snow and junior Shaunae Sawyers in their efforts to beat this version of the Lady Cardinals. Both have been playing lights-out of late, with Snow averaging more than 20 points per game in her last four contests, and Sawyers scoring in double figures and providing dominant performances defensively during the postseason.
Although the teams have not played at the high school level in many years, Lady Bears head coach Angela Mayfield said her team is very familiar with the Lady Cardinals.
“We’ve played against them several times in the summer and in travel ball,” she said on Saturday, following her team’s win over Highlands in the third round. “We know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from us.”
Tip-off for tonight’s game will be at 7 p.m. The winner will face either Murphy or Cherokee in the regional final on Saturday in either Greensboro or Winston-Salem.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.