Those 150 or so fans who were in attendance at the Howard Finch Gym on the last day of February 2017 knew they had just witnessed the real state championship.
On that night, Northwest 1A Conference champion Mount Airy played host to Smoky Mountain Conference champ Murphy in the fourth round of the NCHSAA 1A girls’ basketball state playoffs. The Lady Bears rallied from a four-point deficit with four minutes remaining, winning the game 40-39 on a Jo Snow runner with 9.2 seconds on the clock. Snow subsequently stole an inbounds pass by the Lady Bulldogs, preventing them from taking a potential game-winning shot.
Snow went on to earn a spot on the NCPreps 1A All-State basketball team. Her team won the state championship for the first time in school history, defeating Avery County and then Pamlico by double-digit margins in its final two playoff games.
Murphy, despite owning a MaxPreps power rating higher than that of 2A state champion Clinton for much of the season, went home empty-handed.
On Saturday afternoon, a rematch one year in the making finally takes place. The Lady Bulldogs (27-2) repeated as SMC champs this year and return four of their five starters from last year’s battle with the Lady Bears. Mount Airy, at 25-2 on the season, returns all five starters from its state championship-winning team.
It is quite possible that the 2 p.m. showdown at the Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem is your real state championship game once again. The West Regional champ has won the last 19 1A state championship games. MaxPreps certainly thinks so, as the Lady Bears are ranked No. 1 in their most recent power ratings, and the Lady Bulldogs are No. 2. In their fourth-round games, both teams routed highly-touted foes. Mount Airy clobbered No. 4 East Wilkes 63-37, while Murphy pummeled conference rival Cherokee, the state’s No. 5 ranked 1A team, 55-32.
Between the two teams, the only competitive games with another 1A team came in Murphy’s other meetings with Cherokee, a rival school. The Lady Bulldogs won 77-74 and 62-55, and lost 76-67 on Feb. 5. Murphy’s other loss this year came way back on Nov. 25, when it fell 55-45 to Mountain Heritage, which will play in the 2A West Regional final at noon on Saturday.
The only common opponents between the two schools this season are East Surry and Highlands, and neither team ever came within 20 points of either Murphy or Mount Airy. The only team to do better than a 13-point loss to the Lady Bears was West Forsyth, which made it all the way to the Elite Eight of the 4A state playoffs. The Lady Titans won two close games with Mount Airy, one in double overtime.
Murphy’s leading scorer, and a player likely to be a headache for the Lady Bears, is 6’2” senior center Jessica Beckner. Beckner, who signed a scholarship with NCAA Division II Young Harris College back in the fall, leads Murphy at 16.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. However, she isn’t the only player with some size who plays for the Lady Bulldogs. In last year’s game, Sydni Addison led her team with 15 points. This year, the 5’11” sophomore is back and playing an even bigger role for Murphy, with 10.4 points and 7.5 rebounds a night.
“They have the two big girls, so we’re going to have to make sure we’re ready to go as far as defending their size and rebounding,” said Mount Airy head coach Angela Mayfield.
A year ago, Murphy fell behind by as many as nine points in the first half, but some early foul trouble for Snow helped the Lady Bulldogs get back into the game, down just 27-23 at the break. In the second half, Murphy ran an unusual triangle-and-two defense targeting Snow, using Beckner, Addison and sometimes since-departed six-footer Emma Stroup to defend the Lady Bears’ 5’3” guard. Snow later described this as “one of the toughest defenses I’d ever faced.” The game slowed down to a crawl while Mount Airy tried to crack the Murphy defense, and the Lady Bulldogs held Mount Airy to just four points in nine and a half minutes, going from down 29-25 to up 37-33.
Then Snow figured it out, responding with a 3-pointer to get her team back into the game. The Lady Bears defended ferociously down the stretch, got some outstanding play off the bench, and forced a Murphy turnover with 43.3 seconds left and the visitors ahead 39-38. Snow split two defenders, drove the lane and scored the most famous basket in Mount Airy girls’ basketball history with 9.2 seconds left, then followed that up with the most famous steal in program history with 5.6 remaining.
It is unlikely that Murphy would attempt the same defensive tactics again, as the Lady Bears are even stronger in their ball-handling this season. With Snow and Shaunae Sawyers back in the starting lineup along with Madeline Mayfield, newcomer Alyssa Cox, and holdover junior Bailey Flippen being greatly improved from a year ago, trying to disrupt the Mount Airy offense is a tall order. However, Beckner and Addison present a challenge for Mount Airy’s Arry Ward, Asherah Smith and Mayfield, who often defends the post. And Murphy also has an excellent guard in 5’7” junior Aubrey Clapsaddle, second on the team at 13.3 ppg and who is solid in all areas of the game. The Lady Bears can’t simply pack the middle against the bigs, or Clapsaddle, a strong 3-point shooter at 39 percent (68-174) will burn them.
Both teams have good depth and are comfortable going to their bench. Nine different Murphy players have appeared in at least 24 of the team’s games, with 5’7” freshman Kaiya Pickens (6.7 ppg) the team’s fourth-leading scorer after Beckner, Clapsaddle and Addison.
Murphy is likely to try to keep the game at a slower pace, as it did a year ago, and this means that the aggressive Lady Bears need to take care of the ball, make good decisions about which shots to take, and get after rebounds against Beckner and Addison.
“”We got smarter with our possessions in the second half (against East Wilkes),” said Coach Mayfield. “It’s going to have to be a whole game of smart possessions against Murphy. They are really tough and really smart.”
The winner of this game will face either Pamlico (25-1) or Weldon (22-2) in the state championship game next week at Reynolds Coliseum.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.