NORTHWOOD 66, WILLIAMS 52

Madness of March: Chargers use wealth of experience to stave off surging Bulldogs, earn spot in Final Four

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PITTSBORO — If you hadn’t looked at a calendar beforehand, Tuesday’s Elite Eight matchup in Pittsboro would have made it obvious that the month had just flipped over to March.

It was a night full of pure madness.

The No. 2 seeded Northwood Chargers withstood a third-quarter storm to defeat the No. 14 Williams Bulldogs, 66-52, in the Elite Eight of the NCHSAA 3A women’s basketball playoffs.

The win gives the Chargers a spot in the Final Four, where they’ll be facing off against the top-seeded, undefeated Terry Sanford Bulldogs (30-0) on Saturday.

With Northwood and Williams both being members of the Central 3A conference, they were plenty familiar with one another heading into Tuesday night.

The teams had previously met twice this season, with the Chargers sweeping the regular-season series, 2-0, and winning those two games by a combined score of 123-67.

In short, Northwood never had a reason to worry in the regular-season contests, earning victories of 39 and 17 points, respectively.

Naturally, as patterns typically go, you’d expect the result to be similar in the third meeting.

But this was a different Williams team.

After suffering the most recent loss to Northwood on Feb. 2, 55-38, the Bulldogs won nine of their next 10 games — their only defeat coming at the hands of Eastern Alamance by 5 points in the conference tournament — including upset wins over No. 3 Southern Wayne and No. 6 Southern Durham on the road in the second and third rounds of the playoffs.

“They’re tough, they’ve been the under-ranked team in all of their games and they’ve been battling it out,” said Kerri Snipes, Northwood’s first-year head coach, following the win. “Seeing them two times in-conference, we certainly knew they were a tough team and kind of knew what to expect, but they were on a roll and they had momentum with them, knocking off Southern Wayne and Southern Durham, so we knew they were going to come in here battling.”

Northwood’s experience may have been the key to winning that battle.

Over the last three seasons, Williams had won just one playoff game in two appearances before this year’s deep run.

In that same span, Northwood won five playoff games, including trips to the third round or later in the past two seasons.

For a team full of impactful seniors, that experience — even for those that didn’t get many reps on the court — is crucial. And it showed.

The Chargers were led by senior Olivia Porter (20 points), followed by seniors Natalie Bell (15 points) and Myla Marve (11 points), the three of which culminated in a veteran trio that accounted for 70% of the team’s total scoring.

Porter, who was the leading scorer on two Final Four teams during her four years at Auburn High School in Alabama before transferring to Northwood this season, made it clear that no moment is too big for her.

After an early 3-pointer from Bulldogs junior Bri Scott, the Chargers swiftly took back the lead on a floater from Marve and an easy layup from junior Te’Keyah Bland on a beautiful assist from Bell.

Then, a potential momentum-swinging, and-one bucket from talented Williams senior Taniya Hunter-Smith (21 points, led all scorers) put the Bulldogs within one point, 7-6, but Porter fired back and drilled a 3-pointer from the left corner in transition, which was complemented by another 3-pointer from Bell on the next possession, giving the Chargers a 13-6 lead and blowing the game wide open.

Porter totaled seven points in the opening quarter, including a put-back bucket in the paint to make it 15-8, which she followed up with a steal on the other end.

All night long, she flew to the ball.

She plucked the ball from the Bulldogs’ hands, disrupted all sorts of passing lanes, hustled to secure loose balls and rebounds and constantly wanted the ball in her hands on offense.

“Olivia’s just a hustler,” Snipes said of her senior leader. “She was fighting.”

From there, the Chargers were on a roll.

They topped off a 24-point first period with a 7-0 run that included a driving layup by sophomore Skylar Adams, followed by a pickpocket and transition layup by Bell and then, finally, a deep, buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Adams that brought the Northwood crowd to its feet.

At the end of the first period, the Chargers held on to a 24-11 lead and looked to be cruising to a Final Four appearance.

The second period was much of the same for Northwood, including more transition buckets for Marve, gorgeous drives by Porter and even better team defense.

At the halftime break, the Chargers led, 39-21.

But then it all started to click for the Bulldogs as they began to inch back into the game.

A 3-pointer for sophomore Kiya Shavers here, an and-one bucket from Hunter-Smith there.

And before the Chargers could blink, Williams had cut the deficit down to just 10 points.

A 3-pointer by Bell later in the quarter appeared to give Northwood some breathing room, 45-34, but the Bulldogs simply wouldn’t quit.

A floater by Hunter-Smith and a free throw from freshman Xiomara Moser set up a game-changing 3-pointer from Shavers to cut it to 5 points, 45-40.

Just like that, the Bulldogs had made it a game, all while Northwood fans sat stunned.

This was rare territory for the one-loss Chargers, who are used to putting their feet on the gas and hardly letting up, having blown out nearly every team they’ve faced this season — winning all but one game by double digits.

Early in the fourth quarter, Hunter-Smith hit a pair of free throws to make it a one-possession game, 47-44. Northwood’s lead had nearly evaporated entirely after being outscored in the second half up to that point, 23-8.

“It definitely made us toughen up,” Snipes said of the Bulldogs’ second-half run. “We haven’t been in too many situations this season where we’ve had to kind of grit it out, so it was really good for us to experience that.”

Then, the experience factor kicked in as Northwood’s seniors took control.

Bell knocked down a much-needed ice-in-her-veins 3-pointer shortly after Hunter-Smith’s free throws, extending their lead back to six points.

Porter then hit a free throw to make it a seven-point game, one of her eight made free throws in the quarter. Though she started out the period missing four of her first six free throws — including two technical free throws after the official called Bulldogs Head Coach Jason Cheek for a technical foul — she’d come up huge late in the game, hitting six straight and helping seal the eventual win.

In total, Northwood knocked down 12-of-17 free throws in the fourth (71%), slowly pulling away from a Williams team that suddenly struggled to hit even the most open of shots.

The Bulldogs must’ve used up all of their good fortunes in the third-quarter scoring barrage, which was a stark contrast to the mistake-filled, brick-laden fourth period that saw them make just two field goals and score 10 points.

By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Chargers eked out a 14-point win, 66-52, overcoming their late-game demons to right the ship, get back on track and advance to their second-straight NCHSAA 3A Final Four.

“I think we had a lot of composure there toward the end,” Snipes said. “We came out and tried to settle down a little bit. … It speaks a lot to our seniors, they were in the game for most of the game and they’ve been in those positions before. … I think their experience really helped us out tonight.”

Snipes was referring to the seniors that played in last year’s Sweet 16 game against Terry Sanford, where the Chargers came away with a gritty 46-43 road win after junior McKenna Snively drained a game-winning 3-pointer.

This year, she said she knows the Bulldogs of Terry Sanford will likely be looking for revenge for last season’s upset.

“The excitement’s there, we know that they’ve been a tough basketball team for a number of years and we know it’s going to be a battle,” Snipes, who was an assistant coach on last year’s Final Four team, said. “The girls have been very familiar and aware of what Terry Sanford’s been doing and they’re returning most of their players (from last season).

“We’ve explained every round that there’s only this many teams left, everybody else has packed their bags and gone home,” Snipes added. “We’ve kind of gone with that mindset to be grateful for the opportunities we have, but not take it for granted. I think the girls are really starting to realize that.”

Northwood will face No. 1 Terry Sanford in the NCHSAA 3A East Regional Final at Southern Lee High School in Sanford at 2 p.m. on Saturday with a trip to the state title game on the line.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33

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