WINSTON-SALEM — Mount Airy’s Lady Bears took one lesson from their recent history on Saturday evening. The rest of it, they cast into the dustbin.
With 2:49 left in the third quarter of the state’s top-ranked team’s battle with Avery County for the West Regional title, Mount Airy found itself staring up at a 29-28 deficit in a game they had led most of the way. The Lady Vikings had ridden a 10-2 run over a span of three and a half minutes in order to edge ahead for the first time since briefly leading early in the second quarter.
In short, it was Tuesday night’s game with Murphy all over again, where that team had pulled a similar rally, and put the Lady Bears so off their game that it took some last-second heroics to salvage a one-point victory.
It was not going to happen again.
“I thought our body language was a little better tonight than it was against Murphy,” said head coach Angela Mayfield of Avery’s third-quarter rally. “There’s no question that what happened Tuesday helped. I told them after that game that it would make us tougher mentally. We learned from it, and I didn’t see the same body language this afternoon when they took the lead.”
Mount Airy responded to the proverbial gut punch with a 15-4 run of its own, taking a 10-point lead with 3:43 left in the game, and went on to a 49-38 victory.
Four days after the Lady Bears became the first team in the program’s long history to reach the West Regional final, they crashed down another barrier and advanced to this coming Saturday’s state championship game.
Mount Airy (29-2) will face Pamlico County for the championship at either the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill or Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. Assignments for the venues had not been set at press time. Pamlico (29-3) beat Roxboro Community 59-47 for the East Regional title earlier in the day at Methodist University in Fayetteville.
Against Avery County, the top 1A team in the Western Highlands 1A/2A Conference, the Lady Bears were in the ascendant most of the game. The Lady Vikings (24-8), known as an up-tempo team in their own right, seemed to have taken pages out of the books of some of the teams that had given Mount Airy trouble this season. Avery spent much of the game defending Lady Bear point guard Jo Snow with taller players, trying to limit her freedom to create, and also slowed the pace down and tried to limit Mount Airy’s transition attack.
The game started off slowly, with Avery’s Kesha Garland scoring the first basket after nearly two minutes of play. However, Mount Airy scored the next eight in a row, on two baskets by Shaunae Sawyers sandwiched around one from Asherah Smith, and finally Sawyers pounding it inside to Madeline Mayfield for a six-point lead with 2:07 left in the opening period. Avery got the last two hoops of the quarter and trailed 8-6 after one.
The Lady Vikings took the lead early in the second, but Mount Airy responded and went back in front when Sawyers, having one of the finest games of her career, took over midway through the period. She started by driving to the rim and scoring off a scoop shot with 4:53 left in the half. On the next trip down, she led a fastbreak, but pulled up and hit a 15-footer for a 12-11 lead, then made it 15-11 about 40 seconds later with a three off the right wing. The Lady Bears kept attacking, with Jo Snow hitting a six-footer the next time down and then stealing the ball in the backcourt. She got the ball to Mayfield, who scored on a layup to cap an 11-0 run and force Avery coach Matt Wiseman to call a time-out.
Mount Airy carried a 21-15 lead into the half, but just like Tuesday’s game, struggled offensively in the third quarter. After Sawyers hit a three off the right wing at the seven-minute mark, the Lady Vikings rode the hot hand of sophomore guard Heaven Nelson right back into the game. Nelson scored three baskets and assisted on another as Avery methodically chipped away at its deficit while Mount Airy struggled. Finally, with 2:49 left in the quarter, Nelson scored on a five-foot hook and put her team on top 29-28.
Coach Mayfield believed her team could handle it. She never called for a break in the action, even when Avery added a free throw at 1:08 to extend the lead to two. At this point, the Lady Bears had scored just four points in six minutes.
“It crossed my mind to call a time-out at that point, but then we got a basket,” said Coach Mayfield. “Sometimes I’ve seen that it’s best to just let them play and not think too much.”
Sarah Lankford broke the drought with a putback of a missed three with 47 seconds left in the quarter. Then Sawyers struck again, stealing the ball and finding Snow on the break for a layup, and the Lady Bears took a 32-30 lead into the final period.
As the final period got under way, Mayfield decided to use a bigger lineup, inserting Lankford — the team’s leading rebounder per 32 minutes — because she felt like her team needed a boost in that regard. The move came up in spades during a 7-1 spree to open the final frame that started with Sawyers dialing long distance and ended with Lankford grabbing a board and firing long to Arry Ward for a layup at the other end and a 39-31 lead. Nelson finally scored for the Lady Vikings, but Ward gunned in a four-footer and then Sawyers stole the ball in the backcourt and took it 70 feet the other way for a layup and a 10-point Lady Bear lead.
Mount Airy spent the last two minutes playing keep-away, and made enough free throws to keep Avery from every getting closer than seven points. The Lady Bears controlled the boards in the endgame and ended up with a 31-28 edge for the night, even though no one had more than seven individually.
Sawyers had 25 points, seven rebounds, four steals and three assists in a tour de force performance for the West champions. Snow added eight, Mayfield six, Ward and Smith four each, and Lankford two. Lankford, Snow and Ward all had five rebounds. Nelson led the Lady Vikings with 15. Hannah McIntosh added a dozen, and Garland tallied seven.