CHAPEL HILL — With the 2A girls basketball state title runner-up trophy sitting between her feet, all Gabby White could do was watch.
One by one, each Salisbury High player walked up to receive her championship medallion following the Hornets’ 48-39 triumph over Seaforth in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
White bit her jersey, even tucking her face beneath her shirt at times, to hide the scene. Teammate Katherine Leonard aimlessly stared at the Dean E. Smith Center floor as Salisbury raised up its newly minted state title banner.
The loss ended what was a magical run for the young Hawks, a team whose lone upperclassmen are a pair of juniors. As those in maroon and gray stared at the Hornets’ celebration, Seaforth athletic director Jason Amy walked over to White and offered the lead guard some words of encouragement.
“(Amy) was just really proud of us,” White said. “He was telling me how much he’s seen us grow and how proud he is to see us on this stage. He said we’ll be back, so just be ready for this moment.”
Despite its youth, the Hawks displayed a poise and maturity much beyond their years to start the game.
Junior guard Hannah Ajayi maneuvered her way between a pair of Hornets to convert the night’s first bucket. Minutes later, a Peyton Collins corner 3-pointer opened up a 13-point lead for the Hawks, forcing Salisubry to call a timeout.
The quick start may have come as a surprise to many, especially considering Seaforth was battling against the defending state champions. But it wasn’t to Hawks’ head coach Charles Byrd.
“It just shows how hard we’ve worked,” he said. “We had a really good game plan this week and the girls definitely executed early on — I’m super proud of them.”
After opening up the game defending the Hawks in man defense, the Hornets switched to a 2-3 zone trap out of that first timeout. The new tactic left Seaforth searching for different ways to find quality looks.
During the first eight minutes of play, the Hawks only coughed the ball up twice. One quarter later, Seaforth turned the ball over six times.
Open kick-outs off drives were no longer there and skip passes were intercepted by a lurking Salisbury defender. The Hornets outscored Seaforth by nine points in the second period and took a three-point advantage into the break.
“We were expecting a man defense and when they didn’t come out with it, I guess it kind of threw us off a little bit,” Collins said.
Out of halftime, Seaforth’s offense regained its stride.
White connected on a pull-up jumper and Collins canned her second triple of the game to knot the two teams up at 30 apiece. But midway through the quarter, White was whistled for her fourth foul, this time on the offensive end, after hooking a Hornet on her way to the basket.
It was a moment Byrd described as the most “pivotal” part of the game, as the second-year head coach was forced to sideline the Hawks’ leading scorer for the remainder of the period. Even after White subbed back in to start the final quarter, the sophomore guard was more cautious on both ends of the floor, resulting in multiple easy layups for the Hornets.
“It was really big because I’m a really aggressive player and having my fourth foul I knew that I couldn’t put my team in a position where I wasn’t on the court,” White said. “I had to sacrifice my usual two blocks a game or me driving to the basket over someone. It was just really tough to hit my easy buckets and (get) easy defensive stops.”
With White hindered by foul trouble, Makayla Noble came to life for the Hornets. The junior wing drove by the heart of the Hawks’ zone defense, and her eight fourth-quarter points helped Salisbury cruise to victory.
Looking toward a pool of reporters following their championship defeat, multiple Hawks thanked the support they received from family and friends during their unprecedented playoff run. Each echoed that Byrd implemented a strong game plan, and they also reflected on the plays that lead to Seaforth’s early lead slipping away.
From White’s critical foul to the inability to adjust to on the fly to the Hornets’ new zone, there are a plethora of tipping points from Saturday that — had they gone the other way — may have resulted in the Hawks hoisting their first state championship trophy.
But for White, she’s only focused on what she can control now: next season — her junior year.
“This one really stings, losing, you know, the championship,” she said. “We’ll be sad about it today, but get back in the gym tomorrow and the next day. That way when we get back in this situation we’ll win.”