RALEIGH — Being state champions was so sweet, the Lady Bears went and got a repeat.
Mount Airy defended its 1A state girls’ basketball championship on Saturday, riding a dominant performance on the defensive end and a big run at the start of each half to rout East champion Pamlico County in the state finals for the second year in a row, 69-32.
The Lady Bears (27-2 overall) hounded the Lady Hurricanes into 27 turnovers and also had 15 steals in a game that was never really in doubt after the first few minutes of the second quarter, if then. After Pamlico scored the first two baskets of the game, Mount Airy ran off 11 straight points and gradually pulled away after that.
“It was just unbelievable to believe that small town Mount Airy could be back here, much less win back-to-back state championships,” said head coach Angela Mayfield. “I just want them to enjoy the moment, what they worked so hard for.
“These girls approached it like any other game. They prepared well leading up to this game, and were definitely prepared to be here today.”
Pamlico, which made it back to the state finals despite losing three starters from the team that lost to Mount Airy the previous season, had a significantly different approach this season. The Lady Hurricanes, whose only loss prior to Saturday had been by three points to 3A semifinalist Havelock, still had high-scoring lead guard Jainaya Jones, but it also had a strong inside game in 6’0” senior Hydia Davis and 5’11” freshman Mirachell Maher. Pamlico was hopeful that it could slow the game down and have success banging the ball inside.
For two minutes, the strategy worked. The Lady Hurricanes led 4-0 on inside shots by guards Jones and Chainaya Dudley, thanks to their bigs opening the middle of the Mount Airy defense. Nobody scored for a minute, but then the Bears started to roar once more.
“We didn’t approach this as if we were playing the same team as last year, because we were not,” said Coach Mayfield. “It took us a little bit of time to adjust to their size. They have a different strength than last year. Once we were able to speed up the game a little bit, we were good.”
It started a little over two minutes in, with Jo Snow taking the ball right at Davis for a foul. She made the two free throws, then attacked Maher on the next possession and scored Mount Airy’s first field goal.
With the score tied, the Lady Bears took their defensive intensity up a notch. Asherah Smith stole the ball in the frontcourt and threw long to Snow for another score. There was still 4:34 to play in the opening period, but that was the final lead change this game would see. Meanwhile, Mount Airy kept attacking. After another empty possession for Pamlico, Snow went high-low to Madeline Mayfield for a layup. The Lady Bears got another stop and Snow let fly from 23 feet on the left wing, hitting nothing but net. Pamlico head coach April Rose had to call a quick time-out to get the game back under control.
“I was thinking we’d better get organized, or here we go again,” said Rose, whose team surrendered a 19-0 run to Mount Airy early in the 2017 final.
Maher got inside on the next Lady Hurricane possession to end the run, but the Lady Bear blitzkrieg continued, as Snow again took it to the basket for a foul and two free throws. Then Shaunae Sawyers stole the ball and pushed it ahead to Snow for two more. At the two-minute mark, Smith got open at the top of the key and swished a 3-pointer. Pamlico scored the next five points, but Snow answered with another three and it was 21-10 after one quarter of play.
“I was just going with the flow of it,” said Snow, who scored 16 points in the opening period. “I just told myself that it was my last game playing with all these girls, and I went all out.”
Pamlico (26-2) tried to fight back early in the second. Baskets from Jones and Maher pulled them back within seven, and the gap narrowed back to six when Jones hit from the top of the key with 5:51 left in the first half, making the score 25-19.
Unfortunately for the East champs, the Lady Bears just kept coming. Sixteen seconds after Jones’ three, Sawyers gunned one up from the left wing and hit nothing but net. After a minute’s lull, Alyssa Cox finished off a fastbreak for two points and then grabbed a loose ball at the other end and threw ahead to Sawyers for two more. At the second-quarter TV timeout, the Lady Bears led 32-19, almost exactly the same margin at the midway point of last year’s championship game (32-18).
Mount Airy finished the quarter by outscoring Pamlico 8-2, with Sawyers finishing another break, Arry Ward hitting a three, and then Cox making two free throws and a layup. The Lady Bears led 40-21 at the break.
Rose said after the game that she still had hopes that her team could mount a rally in the third quarter, but that wasn’t happening. Maher opened the third quarter with a basket, but then came another Mount Airy deluge. Sawyers scored on a scoop shot, Smith worked inside for a layup, and then Snow stole the ball and took it the other way for two. Rose was back to signaling for time at the 5:43 mark, and the Lady Bears had doubled up her team, 46-23.
“They just suffocated us,” Rose said. “They knew Jainaya was our main scorer and they kept someone in the middle on her. We thought we had a good game plan.”
As it turned out, the Lady Hurricanes wouldn’t score again until early in the fourth quarter, missing some close-in shots that were often little more than bad luck. Unfortunately for them, Mount Airy wasn’t missing anything. It scored 11 more points before the end of the period, starting with Ward stealing the ball and taking it the other way like a guard. Snow had another three, Ward blocked a Pamlico shot underneath, hit a 17-foot jumper from the top of the key, and then assisted Snow on another fastbreak. After Snow took another one to the rack with a minute and a half left in the quarter, Coach Mayfield gave her a breather and the Lady Bears wrapped up the quarter with a 57-23 lead.
“We tried to adjust on the defensive end in the locker room. I didn’t feel like we were closing out. We had like four or five layups go in and out in the third quarter,” said Rose. “I’m not saying it would have changed the momentum, but it would have given us a little more confidence as far as having some points on the board.”
The teams played out the string in the fourth quarter. Mount Airy’s final basket of its championship season came with 2:02 remaining, when Smith hit a three from the right baseline. Those were also the final points of the season. The Lady Bears’ reserves came in at 1:48 and eventually ran out the clock.
Mount Airy claimed the 20th straight 1A state title by a West Regional champion, the 13th straight by a member of the Northwest 1A Conference, and its second in a row, with a combined record of 57-4 over the two years. It was the final game in the careers of Snow, Smith, Ward, Mayfield and Tatyana Long, all of whom attended the postgame press conference with their coach.
“I said I was going to enjoy it more this year,” Mayfield said of being back in the championship game. “It’s hard work, but these girls, and the rest of the team, make it easy. They work hard. I couldn’t ask for a better group to coach.
“(People) can say what they want, but you have a starter get hurt, or get the flu at the wrong time. There’s all sorts of things that can happen and we were blessed by the Good Lord to make it back. To win it back-to-back is pretty doggone special.”
Snow led the team with 27 points. Smith added 13, Sawyers nine, Cox six, Mayfield four and Long two. The Lady Bears had 20 assists as a team, six of them by Sawyers and four from Mayfield. Mount Airy out-rebounded the Lady Hurricanes 38-33, in a team effort with Mayfield and Sawyers leading the way with six each.
“These girls love each other, they play for each other, they’re selfless, and they have faith in each other,” said Coach Mayfield. “They know they don’t have to do it all themselves because they have each other’s backs.”
Jones led Pamlico with 17 points, but made just six of 16 shots and had a dozen turnovers. Maher had nine points and six rebounds, and Dudley tallied five.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.