PITTSBORO — After a wild first half that saw four lead changes, the Kinston women’s basketball team shaved Seaforth’s lead to a single point 2 ½ minutes into the final quarter.
But, as a response, the Hawks blew the lid off of their home gym with a nonstop scoring spree to win their first NCHSAA state playoff game in program history on Feb. 22, downing No. 24 Kinston, 55-39.
Seaforth unleashed a balanced scoring attack all game long, dominated the boards and had four starters into double digits to advance to the second round of the 2A playoffs.
“There was a little scare. There’s always a scare,” said freshman guard Gabby White, who tossed in a team-high 15 points. “But I knew my team would pull through. I was pretty confident in what we would do to win the game.”
The secret to the spirit-crushing, final-period pummeling was ball movement and defense. White scored all but one of her points in the first half, then shifted to a greater role on defense, ball-handling and playmaking in the second half.
“I had to make sure nothing crazy happened so we could secure the win,” White said. “I think when we communicate, that’s what helps us. Stop the ball and then transition into offense, move the ball, get a good shot.”
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘worried,’ but it was close. It was close,” Seaforth Head Coach Charles Byrd said of the Kinston comeback, in which the Vikings outscored the Hawks 14-9 in the third period to narrow the gap to 34-33.
“We’ve been in a couple of close games throughout the course of the year, especially early on in the year, we were tested a ton,” Byrd said, so he had confidence his players’ game wouldn’t fracture. “I felt like we were going to put ourselves in the best position to still win the game. We were able to keep our poise and stay disciplined there at the end to pull it out.”
That required some adjustments.
“We really honed in coming into the fourth quarter on our defense. We said we’ve got to get a little bit better on our rotations,” Byrd said. “So we just started bending on the flight of the ball. We were there on the catch. We started extending our back line a little bit higher because their guards were trying to drive, so we extended our back line a little bit higher so we could sit on that action they were trying to do.”
Seaforth also assembled a balanced scoring attack.
Aside from White, freshman Sydney Ballard knocked down 13 points, while sophomore Hannah Ajayi and freshman Peyton Collins had 11 each.
Spreading the scoring attack around “opens it up for us because traditionally we like to play the mid-range,” Byrd said. “So teams would try to sometimes sit in the paint on us. But when we’re hitting the three, it opens it up so we can attack from all three levels.”
White had a pair of 3-pointers; Collins had three.
The Hawks’ Towers of Power — 5-foot-11 Sofia Ramirez and 6-foot-3 Sydney Ballard, both freshman forwards — loomed large under the boards and clogged the lanes, yanking down rebounds and slapping away shots. And they got a lot of looks underneath, frequently from White dishing it off.
“That’s just how I play. Usually, in the fourth quarter, the teams start double-teaming, packing in the lane, so I know that when I drive, I’ll have someone open, and it happens to be the big girls all the time,” White said. “It gives them great opportunities, and it’s a way to destroy the defense in their tracks. I think that helps a lot, if the three isn’t open I can drive and then kick the ball.”
“She is a very special talent,” Byrd said of White. “She’s athletic, and she also just has the knack for finding the basketball.”
On Tuesday, she was everywhere.
With time running out in the first quarter, she snatched a turnover, drove towards the basket, then dished off to Collins, who missed a 3-pointer. But there was White with the rebound and quick shot to record the second lead change for a 10-8 Seaforth advantage.
With 10 seconds remaining before halftime, she drove to the basket in heavy traffic, mystified a defender with a great fake and popped it in for a 25-19 Seaforth lead.
At the 2:34 mark of the third quarter, she blocked a shot by Kinston’s Saniyah White Wooten, otherwise the Vikings could have taken the lead at the end of the period instead of trailing, 34-33.
Leading by three points in the fourth period, Seaforth went on a 9-point run to go up 49-37 with 2:20 remaining and blow the game wide open. Kinston’s Zy-Niyah Perry stopped the bleeding with a fast break basket at 1:16. Perry led all scorers with 18 points.
After starting the season with a 6-7 record, Seaforth steadily improved and was on a 13-game win streak, which saw the team sweep the Mid-Carolina 1A/2A conference, before falling to the No. 8 Whiteville Wolfpack, 44-39, in the second round of the NCHSAA 2A playoffs last Thursday.
“We work extremely hard,” Byrd said. “We have girls coming in at 6 a.m. to work out, we have girls staying after practice, so I think it’s a testament to them how hard they’ve worked. They’ve put in a ton of extra time outside of our regular practice time to get better.”
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