If North Carolina high school basketball was like college football, with its “bowl and poll” system, the Mount Airy Lady Bears would already be state champions.
In the MaxPreps.com rankings, the only ones that continue into the postseason, the Lady Bears are the state’s top-ranked 1A team. They are coming off a 40-39 win over third-ranked Murphy, and the only team between them and the Lady Bulldogs is Murphy’s arch-rival Cherokee, who Murphy vanquished before falling themselves in Tuesday night’s thriller.
However, two more victories stand between Mount Airy and the school’s first-ever state championship in girls’ basketball. The penultimate step will take place at 4 p.m. today, when the Lady Bears (28-2), the third overall seed in the West, take on Avery County, the runner-up in the Western Highlands 1A/2A Conference. The Lady Vikings finished as the top 1A team in the league, a game back of 2A Mountain Heritage.
Avery was seeded as a conference champion and drew the No. 6 position. The Lady Vikings have yet to be seriously challenged in the postseason, downing South Stanly (73-28), Chatham Central (76-45), Bishop McGuinness (67-44) and Gray Stone Day (55-39) on their way to the regional final. All but the victory over second-seeded Gray Stone were at home.
MaxPreps rates Avery as the state’s fifth-best 1A team. Three of the Lady Vikings’ seven losses came at the hands of Mountain Heritage, which was still playing in the 2A postseason until it lost to North Surry in the third round. The others were to Asheville Christian, 4A Watauga (a team they split with), and twice to Cloudland (Tenn.).
Among the teams in the MaxPreps’ 1A top 20, Avery and Mount Airy are first and third in overall strength of schedule.
Lady Bears head coach Angela Mayfield says that the Lady Vikings are very similar in personnel and style of play to her own team, meaning that today’s game is unlikely to be a repeat of the grinding defensive battles the Lady Bears faced against Atkins and Murphy in their last two contests.
“They’re very similar to us. It’s almost like watching ourselves play,” Mayfield said. “They like to run the ball, they play aggressive man-to-man defense, and they’re similar in size to us.”
Avery’s leading scorer is 5’7” sophomore Heaven Nelson, who averages 18.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. Their only other player averaging double figures is point guard Hannah McIntosh, also a sophomore, who averages 10 points and 5.9 assists per contest. Other Lady Vikings averaging five or more points per outing are 5’9” sophomore McKenzie Franklin (9 ppg, 4.2 rpg), 5’7” senior Kesha Garland (7.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and 4’11” senior Charity Ollis (5.1 ppg, 2.5 apg, 2.5 rpg).
Garland and Ollis are the only two seniors on the roster, making Avery a relatively young team to be this deep into the playoffs. This is another way in which the teams are similar. For the Lady Bears, seniors Sarah Lankford and Megan Fleming play important roles off the bench, but none of the five starters is a senior.
Mount Airy rotates eight players as part of its normal rotation. Three Lady Bears, Jo Snow (15.4), Shaunae Sawyers (13.1) and Asherah Smith (10.3) average in double figures. Snow is the team’s leading assist-maker at 4.4 per game, but the team shares the rebounding duties. Arry Ward leads the team at 5.3 per game, but six players all average 3.7 or better per night. The coach encourages her team to aggressively run down loose-ball rebounds at all times.
Mayfield said that Avery’s similarity to her own team makes this game easier to prepare for, but stressed that it won’t make the Lady Vikings any easier to beat.
“To me, it’s easier to prepare for a team that’s similar to us, but we know we have a tough opponent ahead of us,” she said. “They came from a tough conference. Murphy was a little bit different than what we usually see; we hadn’t played a team like them since North Surry, and we haven’t seen North Surry in a while. But there’s no difference in the quality of the team. Avery is good and they’re battle-tested. We’ve got to do what we’ve done all season, and we’ve got to do it well, in order to win.”
The winner of this game will play either Pamlico County or Roxboro Community for the state championship on March 11. Those two teams are playing today at 2 p.m. at Methodist University in Fayetteville. The state championship games are being held at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill and at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.