MOUNT AIRY — East Wilkes had to feel like it had top-ranked Mount Airy right where it wanted them in the first half of Tuesaday’s fourth-round playoff showdown.
The Lady Cardinals were trading blow for blow with the defending 1A state champions, and the host Lady Bears were in so much trouble with fouls and injuries that they rarely had more than two starters on the floor in the second quarter.
“I thought in the first half, it couldn’t have been any worse for us,” said Lady Bears head coach Angela Mayfield.
The Lady Cardinals took the fight to their hosts in the early part of the game, as senior guards Lauren Johnson and Gracie Brown took advantage of the Lady Bears’ concerns with post players Alexis Pardue and Lakyn Mathis to get East Wilkes off to a good start. Less than three minutes into the game, Brown stole the ball in the frontcourt and took it the other way for an and-one layup and a 5-3 East Wilkes lead. Mount Airy scored twice to go back on top, but then Lauren Rakes had an and-one of her own. East Wilkes led 8-7, and the Lady Bears were already going deep into their bench.
Things continued in the same vein for quite some time after this. Mount Airy (25-2) led by a point at the end of the first quarter, but Pardue and Mathis opened the second with consecutive baskets and put the Lady Cardinals up 16-13. Mount Airy’s Asherah Smith got open on the baseline and tied the score with a three, but the visitors weren’t backing down. Back came Mathis with a 15-foot jumper, and the Lady Cardinals reclaimed the lead with 4:11 left in the first half.
Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for East Wilkes and its roughly 250 loyal fans who packed into Mount Airy’s Howard Finch Gym. There were two things that the Lady Cardinals ultimately didn’t have a response for. One was the Lady Bears’ depth on the bench. The other was two-time Northwest 1A Conference Player of the Year Jo Snow.
Five seconds after Mathis’ jumper, Snow made a mad dash across the court and drew a foul in the act of shooting. Her free throws tied the game, and a half-minute later, she went coast-to-coast for a layup that provided the last lead change of the game. Snow poured in a 3-pointer and a short jumper in the lane before halftime, scoring her team’s last nine points of the half as Mount Airy took a 25-19 halftime lead.
Even though the Lady Bears had finally nosed in front, their coach admitted that the Lady Cards had given them all they wanted.
“We needed that kind of battle,” said Mount Airy head coach Angela Mayfield. “We knew they were going come in here and be scrappy. A lot of these girls have playing against each other since they were in second or third grade.”
The third quarter wasn’t any better for the visitors.
Two Arry Ward free throws and a full-court drive by Shaunae Sawyers made it a 10-point game right out of the gate. East Wilkes head coach Matt Campbell called time-out and Tess Jolly hit a 3-pointer for the Lady Cards, but Cox dashed to the other end and answered for her team. Snow got inside for a foul and two free throws, then dialed long distance from the right baseline at the 3:33 mark. Campbell called time again and Mathis scored out of it, only to see Snow go coast-to-coast and dish to Madeline Mayfield for two. Inside of a minute, Cox and Snow played give-and-go on a fastbreak that finished with the former drawing a foul and making her free throws. It was 43-25 at the end of the period.
East Wilkes never got closer than 15 in the final quarter. Snow kept putting on a show, at one point sinking back-to-back threes from the same spot on the left wing. She ended the game with 28 points, including six 3-pointers.
Johnson, Jolly, Brown and Pardue all ended their careers with the Lady Cardinals with the loss. However, East Wilkes can look back proudly on a 23-5 season in which the only four teams it lost to have combined for 86 wins and counting.
Mount Airy will play Murphy for the West Regional title on Saturday. The Lady Bears got 10 points from Smith and six from Madeline Mayfield.
Mathis led the Lady Cardinals with nine points. Pardue added eight, Rakes seven, Brown six, Johnson four and Jolly three.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.