The problem with trying to beat Mount Airy is that even when you take one thing away, the Lady Bears are likely to come back with something else, and beat you anyway.
East Wilkes found that out the hard way, as the No. 1-ranked Lady Bears advanced to the West Regional final with a dominating 63-37 victory over the fourth seed in the NCHSAA 1A state basketball playoffs on Tuesday night.
“We have so many players who are capable of doing great things on the court,” said Mount Airy head coach Angela Mayfield, who had to call on her bench early and often due to injuries and early foul trouble. “The biggest thing tonight for us was playing through adversity. I thought in the first half, it couldn’t have been any worse for us.”
It was the final home game for five Lady Bear seniors, and all of them had their moments in this contest. Northwest 1A Conference Player of the Year Jo Snow was her usual self, with 28 points that included six 3-pointers. Arry Ward and Madeline Mayfield provided outstanding defense against a Lady Cardinal team that featured two outstanding post players in Alexis Pardue and Lakyn Mathis. Asherah Smith helped carry the load in the first half, when not much else Mount Airy was doing on offense was working. And Tatyana Long came off the bench and played some outstanding minutes when a few of her teammates got into foul trouble.
And now all five of them are two wins away from winning back-to-back state championships.
The next stop for the Lady Bears (25-2) is a familiar one. Mount Airy will play Smoky Mountain Conference champion Murphy in a showdown of the state’s top two 1A teams in the MaxPreps rankings. The teams met in last year’s regional semifinal, and the Lady Bears rallied in the last four minutes to win the game 40-39. The winner of that game is likely to face Pamlico County in the state finals for the second year in a row.
Murphy (27-2) beat conference rival Cherokee 55-32 in the other regional semifinal on Tuesday night.
Pretty much everyone connected with the Lady Bears’ program was expecting this outcome, but Mount Airy still had to take care of East Wilkes, an experienced team that was eager for its chance to knock off No. 1. The Lady Cardinals (23-5) hung with their hosts in the early part of the game, as senior guards Lauren Johnson and Gracie Brown took advantage of the Lady Bears’ concerns with Pardue and Mathis to get their team off to a good start. Less than three minutes into the game, Brown stole the ball in the frontcourt and took it the other way for an and-one layup and a 5-3 Wilkes lead. Shaunae Sawyers and Smith answered for the home team, but then Lauren Rakes had an and-one of her own. East Wilkes led 8-7, and not only was Sawyers done for the first half in foul trouble, but Ward was hurt on the play and missed several minutes of action.
None of this discouraged the Lady Bears. Alyssa Cox checked into the game and the Mount Airy perimeter defense didn’t miss a beat. Then, with 1:31 left in the quarter, Long stuck a 3-pointer with a hand in her face and the Lady Bears held a slim 13-12 lead after a quarter of play.
With a few players saddled with two fouls, Mount Airy played most of the second quarter with an unusual lineup, sometimes playing Long, Cox and fellow reserve Bailey Flippen on the floor with Snow and one other starter, usually Smith. The Lady Cardinals tried to take advantage of this, taking a 16-13 lead on baskets by Pardue and Mathis. But Smith got open on the baseline and tied with a three. Back came Mathis with a 15-foot jumper, but little did the Wilkes faithful know that was their team’s high-water mark.
They may not get as much playing time, but they know when they go out there, the team’s depending on them,” Coach Mayfield said. “Both of those girls (Cox and Long) and Bailey Flippen all stepped up tonight. When we get into foul trouble, they have to step up and play, and they did.”
With the visitors up 18-16, it suddenly started Snowing. She took it to the rim for a foul, made the two free throws, then ran down a rebound at the other end and went coast-to-coast. No one scored for the next 90 seconds, but then Snow found herself open on the right wing and swished a 3-pointer. She added a jumper in the lane with 28 seconds remaining in the first half. She had her team’s last nine points of the first half and had staked the Lady Bears to a 25-19 lead.
“We needed that kind of battle,” said Coach Mayfield. “We knew they were going come in here and be scrappy. A lot of these girls have playing against each other since they were in second or third grade.
“I told our girls at halftime that they had to adjust to what (the referees) were calling. If they call it, it’s a foul. You can’t react, you’ve got to adjust.”
East Wilkes had woken up a pack of angry Bears, and paid for it in the third quarter. Two Ward free throws and a full-court drive by Sawyers made it a 10-point game. Lady Cardinal coach Matt Campbell called time-out and Tess Jolly hit a 3-pointer for the visitors, but Cox scored at the other end before Wilkes’ fans had even stopped cheering. Snow got inside for a foul and two free throws, then dialed long distance from the right baseline at the 3:33 mark. Campbell called time again and Mathis scored out of it, only to see Snow go coast-to-coast and dish to Madeline Mayfield for two. Inside of a minute, Cox and Snow played give-and-go on a fastbreak that finished with the former drawing a foul and making her free throws. It was 43-25 at the end of the period.
East Wilkes never got closer than 15 in the final quarter. Snow kept putting on a show, at one point sinking back-to-back threes from the same spot on the left wing.
As the game ended, the Lady Bears’ “Fab Five” seniors posed for one final shot in the Howard Finch Gym — a photo of five Lady Bears with championship legacies in not only basketball, but also in tennis, track and field and golf.
Snow’s second “28” in three games led the way, with Smith scoring 10, Mayfield six, Cox and Long five each, Sawyers four, Flippen three and Ward two. Ward did most of her work on defense, erasing about a dozen potential Lady Cardinal points with blocked shots.
“Arry’s had a couple of games like that,” said Coach Mayfield. “I don’t know if she scored last game, but she was very active in the paint and very active on defense. That’s what we need her to do, protect the paint, protect our basket.”
Mathis led the Lady Cardinals with nine points. Pardue added eight, Rakes seven, Brown six, Johnson four and Jolly three.
The Lady Bears will find out the time and location of their rematch with Murphy today. The game will be played either in Greensboro or in Winston-Salem.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.