SANFORD — In a bone-jarring contest filled with heart-stopping drama, the Northwood women’s basketball team weathered the greatest challenge in their state playoff run thus far and ascended to a pinnacle no other Charger team has reached.
They’re heading to their first state championship game in program history.
The No. 2 seed Chargers (30-1) streamed onto the court in a jubilant celebration after dumping the undefeated No. 1 seed Terry Sanford Bulldogs (30-1), 51-50, in a see-saw 3A Final Four battle Saturday at Southern Lee High School.
It was a bruising game from start to finish, with the electrifying aura of two heavyweight prizefighters going toe-to-toe, giving as good as they got, with victory decided by who touched the ball last.
Northwood, the NCHSAA 3A Eastern Regional champs, will face Enka, the No. 19 seed Western Regional winners, on Saturday, March 12, at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh for the 3A crown.
“This is the first time in our program history that we’ve made it” to the championship game, said a smiling Northwood coach Kerri Snipes, who led the Chargers to the feat in her first season as head coach.
It was the grail the Chargers doggedly chased all season after a loss in the Final Four last year that continued to haunt them.
Senior guard Natalie Bell, who popped in 11 points, said she was reveling in the moment.
“But it will kick in tomorrow,” she said.
Senior teammate Olivia Porter, who moved back to the area before the school year and became an instant fixture on the team, scored a game-high 16 points against a high-octane Terry Sanford defense. The historic accomplishment has a special meaning for her.
“When I first moved here, I had a meeting with Coach Snipes and I said, ‘I want to win a state championship,’” Porter said. “And the fact that I’m doing everything that I told her at the beginning means a lot to me, and my word means a lot to her that she trusts me and we’re in this position.”
But the Bulldogs tested Northwood like no other team — and they didn’t advance to the state finals without some pain.
Northwood sophomore Skylar Adams had a frightening collision with Terry Sanford top gun Miya Giles-Jones early in the game, going down hard and being helped off the court. She returned to the floor a short time later.
“I dislocated my shoulder,” Adams said, nursing her injury with a post-game ice pack. “I felt it pop out. But then it popped back in.”
“We certainly had a game,” Snipes said. “We knew Terry Sanford was a tough team. They’ve obviously been undefeated for a reason all season.”
They were the toughest team the Chargers faced this year, she said.
“We knew they were going to have aggression that we probably haven’t seen in all aspects. But I’m really proud of our girls for sticking to our plan, playing smart, playing defense, and just stepping up to the challenge,” Snipes said. “So we ... played, I thought, really, four good quarters.”
The biggest surprise of the day was that it was a relatively low-scoring affair.
Terry Sanford was averaging 67.9 points per game; Northwood 60.1. But Northwood led just 6-2 after the first quarter and 24-18 at the half.
Credit the Chargers’ defense for keeping the Bulldogs in check.
Giles-Jones was averaging 19.7 points per game, but was held to 9 on Saturday. Bulldogs senior Tamia Morris was averaging 18.5 points per game but scored just 12, all on 3-pointers.
Terry Sanford coach Thurston Robinson was at a loss to explain the scoring collapse.
“It was kind of the way the game evolved,” Robinson said. “We wanted to have an up-tempo game, but for some reason, it got slowed down. I guess some of the fouls involved slowed it down, so we couldn’t get up-tempo as fast as we normally play, and that hurt us too.”
Northwood outscored Terry Sanford 11-7 on free throws.
Snipes had a slightly different take, starting with the pesky defensive play of Adams, a slender 5-foot-8 guard who disrupted the muscular 6-foot Giles-Jones. Adams, Snipes said, was tough on D, and got plenty of help from teammates.
“We knew that they like to run,” she said. “That’s how they get most of their points, is in transition. So we wanted to make sure that we were ready for their press, being able to break their press and then slow the tempo down to where we were getting good shots, and not forcing anything.”
The coach switched to a full-court press in the fourth quarter to further badger the Bulldogs.
But Terry Sanford’s relentless defense made it tough for Northwood to get shots off as well. The Chargers were able to attack the rim more in the second half, drawing fouls and hitting key free throws in the waning minutes.
The second half was a nail-biter.
Four times the game was tied. Three times Terry Sanford edged into the lead.
Northwood seized the lead four times, most importantly with 2:13 left in the game when Porter hit a pair of free throws to go up 47-45.
The Chargers never trailed again.
That’s not to say there weren’t any more moments of suspense. Two late, unforced turnovers caused some chills. With Northwood leading, 48-45, with 47 seconds on the clock, Chargers junior Gianna McManaman was under intense double-team pressure on the Chargers’ end of the court. She attempted to pass, but the ball went wide and rolled out of bounds, leading to a pair of free throws by Bulldogs freshman Breonna Roaf to make it a one-point game.
Then, with 27 seconds remaining and Northwood clinging to a 48-47 lead, the normally steady-handed Bell lost control of the ball as she brought it up the court and it spun out of bounds.
“When I did that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I literally screwed it. I literally messed it up,’” Bell said. “I didn’t really get frustrated with myself because our defense was on point today. … I just knew we had it in the bag.”
Her faith in the team panned out.
Porter snatched a huge defensive rebound on an errant Terry Sanford shot, getting fouled and converting a pair of free throws for a 51-47 lead with 10 seconds to go.
Then, Morris fired in a 3-pointer with 3 seconds remaining to tighten the score to 51-50.
Chargers’ senior Myla Marve then inbounded the ball to Porter, who was swarmed by Bulldog players but managed to hold off until the buzzer sounded.
“I didn’t want my final high school game to go out like that on me,” Porter said. “So I knew I’d do anything to get that ball, even if I had to fall or do a cartwheel, I didn’t care … because that’s how I knew we were going to seal the game.”
Northwood will play for the NCHSAA 3A Women’s Basketball State Championship against the Enka Jets (16-14) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.
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