WINSTON-SALEM — Thanks to Alyssa Cox, Mount Airy already has the best 1A girls’ golf team in the state.
On Saturday afternoon, she was the best player on the court for a team set to prove that it is once again the best 1A girls’ basketball team in the state, as well.
The 5’7” junior, who returned to the hardwood last fall after two years in which she focused solely on her other sport, lifted the Lady Bears back into the state championship game with 15 sensational minutes of basketball in the West Regional final against Murphy at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum. Cox led her team 15 points, was one of four Mount Airy players to tie for the team lead with seven rebounds, and still found time to lead everyone with three steals. Thanks to her efforts and those of her teammates, the Lady Bears pulled away in the fourth quarter and won 46-35.
“We didn’t scout for number 4 (Cox) at all, and she ended up having 15 points,” said Murphy head coach Ray Gutierrez. “She was definitely a spark for them, and I think that was the big difference.”
With the win, Mount Airy returns to the 1A state finals for the second year in a row, where the Lady Bears will once again face a familiar opponent. They will be facing Pamlico County (27-1), which repeated as 1A East champ on Saturday with a 68-51 victory over Weldon High School. Game time is noon at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.
Mount Airy has been the state’s top-ranked 1A team in virtually every poll all season long, and was the odds-on favorite to repeat as state champions with all five starters back from last year’s 30-2 team. The only thing standing in the Lady Bears’ way was Murphy, a powerhouse team that Mount Airy outlasted 40-39 in last year’s fourth round. No one was surprised when the team reached the regional final and found the Lady Bulldogs waiting and primed for revenge.
“Last year still seems like a dream,” said Lady Bears head coach Angela Mayfield, who is now 2-for-2 in regional finals in two years as head coach. “They have had this unspoken goal since day one of getting back, and we knew Murphy was tough. It just feels great.
“It’s amazing to be back in the state championship. These girls have been playing together for years, and I couldn’t think of a better way to end it.”
Murphy (27-3) wasted no time making a statement. The Lady Bulldogs held Mount Airy to just a single point in the first three and a half minutes, while Hailey Thompson and Ellie Martin knocked down three shots and staked Murphy to an early 7-1 edge. But the Lady Bear guards quickly brought their team back. Jo Snow drove the lane and scored. Then Cox, who’d just checked into the game off the bench, took the ball inside, drew a foul, and sank two free throws. A driving layup by Snow and then two free throws off another drive to the basket had Mount Airy on top 9-7 after five and a half minutes of play.
“We had planned to attack them the whole time,” said Snow, who repeatedly challenged Murphy on drives to the basket in the first half. “Coach Mayfield told me to keep going, so that’s what I did. We knew they had that one big girl (6’2” Jessica Beckner) returning from last year, so we were ready for her.”
Play went back and forth for the balance of the first quarter, and the Lady Bulldogs took a 16-13 lead when Murphy’s Sydni Addison hit an open 3-pointer from the top of the key with one second left in the opening period.
Gutierrez said he liked where his team was at this point.
“We couldn’t have dreamt of a better start,” he said. “16-13 in the first quarter, a couple of them with fouls on them. I was really comfortable with the pace the game was going.”
But if you were a Murphy fan, trouble was brewing in the Joel Coliseum, and she went by the name of Alyssa Cox.
Cox was playing so well that Coach Mayfield left her on the floor to begin the second quarter. Snow started the period with a short jumper in the lane, and on the next Murphy possession, Cox stole the ball underneath and went coast-to-coast, getting hacked as she went up to shoot. She made two free throws and the Lady Bears regained the lead at 17-16.
A minute later, Aubrey Clapsaddle knocked down a three from the left baseline and Murphy led again. But when Mount Airy got the ball back, the Lady Bulldogs sloughed off Cox, standing open on the left wing. The ball came out to her and she let fly, hitting nothing but net.
“I couldn’t read (Alyssa) before the game, and I thought she looked a little nervous, but she stepped up and had a really great game today,” said Coach Mayfield.
Murphy regained the lead at 22-20 on free throws from Martin and Beckner with five minutes left in the half. Twenty seconds later, Cox drained a 16-footer from the left baseline, and the Lady Bears never trailed again.
“I was really nervous, I felt like it was my first game back,” said Cox, who was 4-7 from the field with two threes in a game where both teams shot about 30 percent. “In practice, we shoot it a lot, and they always say not to think about it. so I don’t. I just threw it up there.”
Two more charity tosses from Snow were followed by Cox gunning up her second three of the quarter, this time from the left baseline, to give Mount Airy its biggest lead to that point at 27-22. Clapsaddle responded with a three of her own, but the Lady Bears ended the half with Snow driving and dishing to Arry Ward for two, and then Asherah Smith stealing the ball and taking it the other way for two points right before intermission.
An 18-9 second quarter had the Lady Bears on top 31-25 at the break.
The Lady Bulldogs were far from finished, and in the third quarter, they unleashed some of the toughest defense faced by the Lady Bears in a year — namely, since the third quarter of last year’s playoff game with this same team. Murphy held Mount Airy to just four points in the frame.
The Lady Bears managed just one field goal in the quarter, but still led 35-29 before Beckner, a senior who has already signed a college scholarship offer, got inside with 1:27 left and pulled her team within 35-31. It stayed that way until the end of the quarter.
This is where Murphy’s coach felt, in retrospect, his team let its big chance slip away, stating after the game that the Lady Bulldogs missed too many shots in the third quarter while Mount Airy was having offensive difficulties of its own.
Two great teams took the court for the final eight minutes knowing one would go home. As it turned out, the Lady Bears were just a little bit better.
Cox opened the fourth quarter by getting inside for a layup. A Sawyers free throw put her team up seven before Beckner got inside for Murphy. Gutierrez called time-out and ordered the Lady Bulldogs into a 1-3-1 press, the same defense he’d used to give Mount Airy fits the year before. Murphy forced a quick turnover, and Beckner soon got inside again, drew a foul, and made two free throws. The Lady Bulldogs trailed just 38-35 with 5:15 to play.
The Lady Bears answered the bell. On their next possession, the team got two offensive rebounds before Smith scored on a putback. No one scored for the next minute, but then Snow got the ball, went coast to coast and kicked back out to Ward for a short jumper and a 42-35 lead. Ward hit a 15-footer at the 2:40 mark to put her team up nine for the first time, and it was at this point that Coach Mayfield said she looked up at the scoreboard for the first time and knew victory was near.
Down the stretch, Cox stole the ball from a Murphy player after getting mugged for a rebound at the other end, Ward rejected a shot, and Sawyers had a steal which led to a foul at the other end and the final two points of the game with 2:09 left, on a pair of free throws. Murphy never scored again.
After allowing 16 points in the first quarter, Mount Airy allowed the No. 2-ranked team in the state to score just 19 more the rest of the game.
“We thought we could put the ball in the basket a little bit better this year, but we didn’t,” said Gutierrez. “Credit to them. They are so good defensively.”
The brilliance of Cox was the key factor, but no one was overlooking the heroics of Snow, who played all 32 minutes and had 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Sawyers contributed eight points and seven rebounds, Ward six points and seven rebounds, and Mayfield didn’t score, but grabbed six boards despite having to deal with Beckner for much of the game. Smith contributed five points and two assists. The Lady Bears used just seven players in the contest. They out-rebounded Murphy 41-24 despite a size disadvantage.
“That just speaks volumes about our girls and how hard they work,” said Coach Mayfield. “We’ve been taking for the last three days about their size and how we had to hit the boards. That’s just unbelievable for me, to look at the stat sheet and see that stat.
“We were focused on Beckner and 23 (Clapsaddle) the whole game, and Madeline had to work inside. She’s not a post player, she’s strong, but she did a great job of staying front of (Beckner). We knew if she caught it from behind, she was going to score.”
Beckner led Murphy with 13 points and seven rebounds. Clapsaddle added eight and Martin six.