Red-hot Seaforth girls basketball team reaches 2A state final


GARNER — Hot dang!

Those history-making Hawks are for real.

The No. 5 seed Seaforth girls basketball team won the East Regional 2A basketball title over No. 2 seed North Pitt, 53-41, on Saturday. They did so on the strength of a torrid 17-point shooting performance by sophomore point guard Gabby White and a trio of teammates who notched double digits. 

The Hawks jumped to an early first period lead, then unleashed an offensive barrage and swarming defense to oust the Panthers, snapping the Pitt County’s 20-game win streak in the process. 

The shocking run through the east bracket by a school in just its second year of existence was not lost on the Seaforth players and coaches.

“Honestly, it’s amazing. Being just two years in the school and doing so much. It just means a lot,” a jubilant White said after the game while being bear-hugged and congratulated by family members celebrating at midcourt. “I want to say thank you to my mom and dad for helping me in the gym and all that stuff, and getting me to where I am.”

Mutual trust is a key component of the team’s success.

“It’s taken us to places we never thought we’d be able to (go), so I’m just grateful and lucky to have this team,” White said. “We were just excited, second year playing on a stage like this. We just wanted to play the best we can in front of the people we love.”

“I’m so glad that we’re here. We’re like that. Seaforth is like that,” said junior guard Hannah Ajayi, the team’s 3-point season leader. She poured in 14 points, including a pair of threes. “I feel great. Honestly, just ecstatic because our team’s worked really hard and … we showed it.”

Ajayi was averaging 8.7 points per game entering the 2A semifinal, but came up huge with 14 against North Pitt. What edge was she able to find in this crucial game?

“I’m religious, and I’d say the Lord has really given me the confidence,” she said. “He’s brought me to this point. That’s the only edge I think I have that may be different. Besides that, teammates that I’ve been blessed with that keep me up.”

Coach Charles Byrd was an island of cool and calm understatement amid a sea of dancing, exultant students, fans and families who rushed onto the court with hearts and pompoms in full flutter for post-game pictures and revelry.

“It’s truly a blessing to be going to the state championship,” Byrd said. “I’ll just say they work extremely hard every single day, and it’s a testament to them (and) the work they put in every single day.”

A night to remember

Byrd said the key to getting past North Pitt was keeping junior guard Zamareya Jones in check. Jones was shooting 58% from the floor and averaging 28.9 points per game entering Saturday — and scored 55 points to help North Pitt win 2A Eastern Plains Conference Tournament title game last month.

“Our emphasis in practice the past several days is to know where No. 3 (Jones) is at all times,” Byrd said. “Don’t give her any clean looks. Make sure we contest everything. … She’s a phenomenal player.”

“Playing against a player like Zamareya, that just makes it twice as better, so we just wanted to get out and play our game and have some fun,” White said.

The strategy was working. Initially, that is. Jones was held scoreless in the first period. Senior guard Zykhela Staton, No. 2 on the Panthers’ season scoring chart, picked up all 5 of North Pitt’s first period points. She bombed the nets for a 3-pointer and a 3-1 lead at 6:51 of the first period, but that would be the first and last time the Panthers would lead.

On the other side of the ball, White started showing unrelenting defense that carried throughout the game. She scored seven points in the period, during which Seaforth went on a 12-2 run to leap into a 13-5 lead.

In the second period, Jones showed how explosive and dangerous she is, stinging the nets for 13 points en route to a game-high 30. 

Meanwhile, White’s shooting got frosty. She missed, uncharacteristically and more than expected, between scores, grabbing her own rebounds and tossing up back-to-back misses, even three miscues in a row at one point. 

“The biggest thing we stress to Gabby is it’s a very emotional game,” Byrd said. “She has a lot of emotion, so we’re just telling her to calm down, let the game come to her, just let it flow, let’s move the basketball and once we get the basketball back we’ll go on the attack.”

“I wasn’t making shots,” White said, “but I knew my teammates were hitting shots so I was just making sure my teammates were getting the ball and it’s not just me versus another player. It’s a team game.”

White scored four of the team’s 13 points in the second quarter as the Hawks showed they could hit shots with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Freshman point guard Katherine Leonard and sophomore guard Peyton Collins each scored four points in the frame, and Ajayi netted five. For the game, Leonard and Collins each scored 10.

Seaforth had the edge in quickness. At 5:56 in the period Leonard literally ran a circle around the North Pitt defense to score from the paint. And with 22 seconds before halftime, White snatched the ball in transition and fed Collins on a fast-break to widen the gap to 30-20 after North Pitt twice closed the deficit to four points.

Ajayi ran a steal in for a layup to open the third period, then bucketed a 3-pointer at 6:43 to open the lead to 37-22. The period continued to be a defensive showcase for the Hawks, with White and crew creating mayhem that included her scoring off a steal at 6:08 for a 39-24 lead.

“I feel like my defense and the team’s defense overall was really how we won this game,” White said. “Yes, we were hitting shots, but they had a girl that could really shoot too. I think our defense really stopped her from scoring 40 points.”

“Defense is something that we drill every single day in practice. That’s what we hold our hat on,” Byrd said.

That defensive tenacity, and increased pressure moving the ball around to score, snuffed out North Pitt’s last, faint glimmer of hope for a fourth period comeback. Twice Seaforth built a 17-point lead in the final eight minutes, both times on Collins’ baskets.

“We just really stressed moving the basketball because we knew they were going to be playing man to man,” Byrd said.

Ajayi said that’s a tough game plan for opponents to solve.

“Sometimes they get easily frustrated and we stay strong together,” Ajayi said. “Our coach tells us to stay focused on ourselves. We just do what we do and we’re not focused on the other side. We did that tonight so I’m proud of us.”

What’s next? 

The Hawks (27-3) now advance to the NCHSAA 2A girls state championship game against west regional champion Salisbury (26-3) at 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 11, at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.

In some respects, the teams took similar routes on their march to the pinnacle, including those nearly identical records.

Salisbury, the west’s No. 3 seed, outscored opposing tournament teams 257-188, a 69-point margin. Seaforth outpointed the opposition 258-181, a 77-point edge. One key difference is that the Hawks had to play the giant-killer role by beating three higher-seeded teams: No. 1 Beddingfield, No. 2 North Pitt and No. 4 St. Pauls. The Hornets stung only one higher-seeded team, No. 2 Shelby.

seaforth, girls basketball, 2a, nchsaa, regionals, east, North Pitt, Gabby White, Charles Byrd, Hannah Ajayi