PITTSBORO — The greatest season for a Northwood women’s sports team has come to an end.
For the Chargers, that end felt both abrupt and heart-wrenching, but was laced with memorable …
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PITTSBORO — The greatest season for a Northwood women’s sports team has come to an end.
For the Chargers, that end felt both abrupt and heart-wrenching, but was laced with memorable moments, historic accomplishments and high hopes for the future.
The Northwood women’s basketball team fell to the unbeaten, seventh-seeded Asheboro Blue Comets at home on Tuesday, 54-44, in the East Regional Final of the NCHSAA Women’s 3A playoffs, cutting their run just short of the state championship game and ending their quest for a perfect season at 14-1.
If there were things Asheboro lacked, intensity wasn’t one of them.
“I thought (Asheboro Head Coach Don Corry) had his team more motivated tonight than I did,” said Cameron Vernon, Northwood’s head coach. “The four seniors on their team who played the entire game without coming out, I think they wanted it a little more, and you would expect that from four seniors with this being their last season.”
The Blue Comets led the entire way — from the moment one of those four seniors, guard Ashley Maness, drilled a three-pointer on the game’s first possession to put Asheboro up 3-0, to the final buzzer.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t close.
With 1:52 left in the fourth quarter, Northwood freshman guard Skylar Adams hit two free throws to cut Asheboro’s lead to 49-44. The Chargers were within striking distance, and after Asheboro senior guard Tanaesha Ellison missed two free throws on the ensuing possession, Northwood seemed poised to cut the lead down further.
But they didn’t score for the rest of the contest.
And just how it happened all night long, with the Blue Comets finding a way to stop Northwood in its tracks and extend their lead — this time with a layup by senior forward Diamond McDowell, who drove around Chargers’ sophomore forward Te’Keyah Bland to put Asheboro up by seven.
After Adams’ free throws, Northwood had plenty of opportunities to put points on the board, but the shots just weren’t falling.
“We just couldn’t get over that six-point hump it seemed. We got a couple of stops, then we came down and had questionable shot selection, but that happens, they were trying to make plays,” Vernon said. “I’ve never been mad at them for shooting their shot … as long as they’re playing hard.”
Asheboro’s maturity — inevitable with a team full of seniors led by one of North Carolina’s legendary high school basketball coaches with over 700 wins on his resume — was an asset down the stretch.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Asheboro saw its lead cut to four after a second-chance shot by Bland, with all of the momentum swinging in favor of the Chargers.
Northwood had been in this situation just two games prior at Terry Sanford, which saw the team bounce back from a 17-point second-half deficit to win. A comeback wasn’t out of the question.
But then, just as she did in the game’s opening moments to propel Asheboro to an early lead, Maness hit a three. Then McDowell made a great pass to Sion Murrain for a layup. Then Maness laid it in after a wild, turnover-heavy sequence for both teams.
And suddenly, it was an 11-point Blue Comets lead with 3:25 left.
Asheboro absorbed Northwood’s punches, only to fire back with stronger ones.
McDowell, the Blue Comets’ leading scorer on the year, was electric. She scored 22 points on the night via second-chance baskets, crafty layups and fadeaway jumpers. She could do it all.
“Diamond’s a really good player,” Vernon said. “ She’s a force inside. We didn’t have anybody to guard her. Let’s be honest. We tried our best. She made it difficult for us.”
‘You have to look at the bright side’
For Northwood, this loss stings. There’s no way around it.
Once the final buzzer sounded, the tears started to flow as players began to realize the ride, as special as it had been, was over. But even in defeat, there are plenty of reasons for the Chargers to hold their heads high.
“While that trophy over there, the regional runner-up, is not what I wanted, I’m just happy to be here. I’m happy we got the chance to play,” said Northwood senior guard Rae McClarty. “There are 28 teams who didn’t get to be here today, so you just have to look at the bright side.”
Despite the abbreviated season, the strange year for sports and the lack of in-person workouts in the offseason, Northwood found a way to overcome it all, becoming the first women’s sports team in school history to make a Final Four appearance.
They also became just the second-ever Northwood women’s basketball team to finish the regular season undefeated (1983-84) en route to three playoff wins, including victories over E.E. Smith and Terry Sanford, which both had players from E.E. Smith’s 2020 team that knocked the Chargers out in the Sweet 16 last year.
“I wasn’t very optimistic that we were going to make it through COVID, to be honest with you. Not us personally, the whole state,” said Vernon. “But they made a lot of people in Pittsboro proud. We had so many former Lady Chargers texting me … you could just see the enthusiasm out there in the community, so I can’t say enough about these girls. I want to thank them for giving me a great ride and allowing me to join them on their journey this year.”
A bright future
If Tuesday’s game — along with the season as a whole — was any indication, the future of Northwood basketball is in great hands.
Bland, a sophomore, was the team’s leading scorer on Tuesday (13 points), as she’s been all season, and is a fearless offensive centerpiece for the Chargers moving forward.
“I am super proud of her,” said McClarty. “I just want Te’Keyah to keep doing what she’s doing. To keep being the funny, outgoing, silly girl she is. She’s got two more years, so she’s got two more chances and I feel like she can take this team really far.”
Adams, a freshman, looked like a veteran with the way she carried herself against Asheboro, rarely getting rattled and making smart, team-friendly decisions, while also being the team’s second-leading scorer on the night (11 points).
“Skylar’s going to be special and she had a phenomenal 9th grade year,” said Vernon. “And when she starts getting the feel of the game even more and starts looking for her offense even more, she’s going to be deadly, and there’s going to be a lot of college coaches coming to see her one day.”
The senior class will be led by guards McKenna Snively, Natalie Bell and Myla Marve, along with forward Caroline Allen, each of whom have all shown signs of growth and leadership throughout the season and their careers.
As bright as the future is, being without the leadership of McClarty, the hustle of Jillian McNaught and the energy of Jamaria Faucette — Northwood’s three outgoing seniors — is going to be a tough pill to swallow.
McClarty, the team’s de-facto leader, is the player that brought the most passion, the most heart, the best defense and the most positive energy every night for the Chargers.
“There’s going to be a huge void left with Rae leaving. She’s our heart and soul. She gets the team going, they look to her for leadership, Rae’s not afraid of anybody. I put Rae on the toughest player every night. I wish she was five or six inches taller because I would have put her on Diamond tonight,” said Vernon with a laugh. “Those are the types of players that coaches love to have.”
With Northwood, McClarty and the other seniors have made countless memories during their careers, from Faucette playfully bickering with Vernon during practice and making the other girls laugh to McClarty simply driving Bell to practice and going out to eat with her and Bland.
“I just want anybody who’s still in high school to know that you should just enjoy it while you’re here because there are definitely some moments I took for granted,” said McClarty.
After the game, Vernon gave his last speech to the team, while McClarty, even having just lost her final game as a Charger, comforted some of her teammates who were visibly upset as he spoke.
In moments like that, she said she wants to be her teammates’ “light in a cave of darkness,” always trying to lift their spirits, whether it be after a loss or in the middle of a game when they’re down and trying to claw their way back. She never wants them to look or feel dejected.
“I held myself together and I wanted to show them that it’s going to be O.K. and that the majority of the team, except for me, Mari and Jillian, have a chance next year, so they have something to fight for,” McClarty said. “I’m not going to get to play with them ever again, and that really hurts, but I’m trying to keep my head up … I hope that I left my name in pretty big letters somewhere on this wall.”