Before last March, neither Mount Airy nor Pamlico had ever had a team make it as far as the state championship game in girls’ basketball.
Both schools enjoyed the experience so much that they earned their way back this season.
On Saturday at noon, the defending champion Lady Bears will be the official “home team” for a rematch with Pamlico, who repeated as Coastal Plains Conference champions and then tore through the East Regional to earn another shot at Mount Airy. The once-beaten Lady Hurricanes will play the Lady Bears at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum.
For both coaches, their return to the finals is a case of their teams meeting what each mentor believed to be unrealistic expectations for this year’s team. Pamlico (26-1 overall) is back in the championship game despite graduating three starters from its 2017 squad, while the Lady Bears (26-2) brought back all five starters, but lost three valuable bench players, two of whom were very likely the difference between winning or losing two of their playoff games.
“Heck no,” said Pamlico head coach April Rose when asked if she expected to be back in the championship game. “We lost three starters last year. We kind of had to rebuild a little bit, insert some new people into starting roles and try to find our identity. It’s definitely not the same team.”
Her counterpart with Mount Airy, Angela Mayfield, arguably had an easier task. She returned her entire starting five from the 2016-17 season, including Northwest 1A Conference Player of the Year and 1A All-State guard Jo Snow. In the postgame press conference after beating Pamlico 66-40 last year at the Dean Smith Center, Mayfield was already being asked about a repeat.
“It started immediately,” said Mayfield. “We could hardly enjoy the first one before everyone was saying ‘Well, you have all five of your starters back, it’s automatic, it’s a given.’ Well, we know that is not the case. A lot has to fall into place and a lot has to fall right with injuries, and we’ve been very fortunate this year that things have gone well for us.”
What many fans often overlooked about the 2017 title team was its phenomenal depth off the bench. Mount Airy’s second unit of Sarah Lankford, Megan Fleming, Shalin Revels, Bailey Flippen and Tatyana Long would have made the playoffs in most conferences as a starting five. The first three of those five all graduated, and Lankford and Fleming plays huge roles in the Lady Bears’ final three playoff victories.
“We did have some key players coming off who gave us big minutes last year,” Mayfield said. “I think about Sarah Lankford and how many games she had to step up and get rebounds for us. She was a very physical defender inside. Megan Fleming stepped up and hit some big shots when we needed them. I think about the Murphy game (a one-point win) where she stepped up and gave us some really good minutes there.”
The new-look Lady Bears weren’t allowed to ease into the new season, either. Because of postponements due to the school’s run to the 1A state finals in football, Mount Airy’s girls began with a Dec. 12 game against West Forsyth, a 4A team that made the elite eight in that classification this season. They lost that game in double overtime, and the Lady Bears’ only other loss this season came when they faced the Lady Titans a second time in Clemmons on Jan. 4. They led in the fourth quarter of both meetings but couldn’t hang on in either.
No other team came closer than 13 points until the West Regional final, in which Mount Airy beat Murphy 46-35 by scoring the final eight points of the game.
“From the beginning, we had some high expectations for ourselves,” Mayfield said. “We’re just very blessed to be here. We know that it takes a lot of hard work, and you have to have some luck along the way. Being from a small 1A school, you always know you’re just one bad game or one injury away from not getting here.”
Mayfield’s counterpart from Bayboro could say many of the same things.
Pamlico, like the Lady Bears, had been a quality program for many seasons prior to last year, knocking on the door of the elite in the 1A West, but just a step short. In 2016-17, they finally reached the top of the mountain before being knocked off by the Lady Bears, the 18th consecutive 1A West champion to win the title.
Rose felt her team might have been a little intimidated by the atmosphere, a condition made worse when Mount Airy opened the game with a defensive ferocity rarely seen in the 1A ranks. A 19-0 first-quarter run had Pamlico in a 27-6 hole after just eight minutes of play. The Lady Hurricanes never got closer than 14 points the rest of the night.
“They opened up and pretty much smoked us in the first quarter,” Rose said. I think we need to be a little more prepared and a little less shell-shocked when we walk in there, or potentially the same thing could happen again.”
Pamlico returned its top two starters from that team, 5’0” point guard Jainaya Jones and six-foot post player Hydia Davis, but had to replace the other three. Rose initially had no thoughts of repeating as East champions.
“I guess my expectations were first and foremost that we wanted to win the conference. That was kind of our goal,” she said. “We had a conference alignment with Riverside (Martin), and they’ve kind of been our nemesis prior to this year. We wanted to see how they would do, and we ended up beating them, and took it one step further and kept going.
“It’s not the same team we had last year. We started to figure out who we were toward the end of the season. And here we are again.”
Pamlico’s only loss of this season came on Dec. 4, when it lost 62-59 at Havelock, the eventual 3A East runners-up. The Lady Hurricanes won the CPC title and tournament over Riverside, then rolled through the playoffs, beating Perquimans (56-26), Riverside for the fourth time in 27 days (74-60), Cape Hatteras (46-28) and Weldon (68-51).
Jones, a junior with a playing style similar to Snow’s, leads Pamlico with 19 points and 5.4 assists per game. Davis averages nearly a double-double, with 9.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per outing. She’s had double figures in both categories in each of the Lady Hurricanes’ last five games.
In the regional final win over Weldon, Jones (28 points, 12 assists) and Davis (14 points, 10 rebounds) carried much of the load. But like the Lady Bears against Murphy, Pamlico got a huge lift off the bench, in its case from 5’10” freshman Mirachell Maher, who had 16 points and eight rebounds in just 17 minutes of action. Maher has played in just 16 games this season, but averaged 6.8 points and six rebounds per game, fourth on the team in scoring and third in rebounding.
Rounding out Pamlico’s starting five along with Jones and Davis are 5’6” junior Zion Davis (7.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg), 5’6” senior Chainiya Dudley (2.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg) and 5’5” senior Madison Sadler (4.0 ppg). Pamlico goes very deep into its bench, with 10 players seeing time in 22 or more games, plus Maher, who is in the regular rotation now.
The Lady Hurricanes’ opponents are well aware of the differences between this season and last.
“I know they’re a better team. They’ve added some depth inside with their post players,” said Mayfield. “I know they haven’t forgotten what happened last year, so they will be ready for this game. We have to make sure we’re on our toes and we’re prepared just like every other game.”
Rose said she expects to see much the same as her team did a year ago, and simply must be better prepared for it.
“They’re a super-great team, well-coached,” she said. “I saw a couple of girls who have the same numbers as last year, another girl (supersub Alyssa Cox) who’s kind of stepped up, and we don’t really expect anything different but a run-and-gun team like they were last year.”
Even with the changes, Mayfield also expects Pamlico to be similar to a year ago, only better.
“Both of us know what to expect from the other team, and I think that will help with the nerves, being more familiar with the opponent you’re getting ready to face,” she said. “You don’t want your girls thinking that just because (a blowout) happened last year that it’s going to happen again.”
Game tickets will be $14 in advance or $15 at the venue. Advance tickets are available at Mount Airy High School.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.