Defense powered No. 15 East seed Harnett Central to a 54-47 win in a battle with No. 18 West Brunswick in the first round of the NCHSAA 3-A girls basketball state playoffs Tuesday.
“I can’t speak enough about their defense,” said Harnett Central coach Chelsey Cabe. “Defense won them that game tonight. I told the girls at the beginning of the week, ‘What’s changed is your defense has started to slack, which has allowed the other teams’ offense to be able to pick up.’ That’s why we had been having these closer games and were even being closer with teams we had beaten by large margins. So, all day at practice yesterday we worked on defense, defense, defense, defense. When we have defensive momentum going like that, it turns over on our offense. And they came out and played a heck of a game defensively. I haven’t seen that type of intensity in two weeks. It was nice to see.”
Central advances to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and will travel to No. 2 Eastern Guilford (23-3) on Thursday.
“Stay consistent,” coach Cabe said. “We’ve got to go do that again for four more quarters, with a little bit less transition baskets for the other team. That was the only thing tonight, was we got beat in transition a couple of times. Just a couple of mental errors we’ve got to fix.”
The homestanding Trojans (21-4) were powered by senior Maliah Banks, with 28 points, four rebounds and three steals.
Lyanah Molyneaux had nine points. Syniah McMiller had six points, four rebounds and four blocks. Michaela Cabe had five points. Jordyn Johnson-McLean had two points, five rebounds and four steals. Brittany Mills had two points, three assists and three steals. Marcayla Jones had 10 rebounds. Lyndsey Brewer had two points and three assists.
“It was a collective team win,” coach Cabe said. “They all went in there for a role and they all worked hard and did it. They executed our game plan perfectly. I’m so proud of them.”
The visiting Trojans (16-11) were led by Natrya Gore, with 19 points, and Breanna Mercer, with 18 points.
The first half was closely contested, with Central leading 16-14 at the end of the first quarter and West leading 31-28 at halftime.
Central started the third quarter hot, going on a 13-2 run to take a 41-33 lead. Central led 44-38 at the end of the period.
West started the fourth with a 9-2 run to take a one-point lead, but a pair of scores from Banks and McMiller put the Trojans back in front for good.
Still holding a 50-47 lead with 1:20 left, Central missed the front end of a one-and-one and West took a timeout. Coming out of the timeout, Gore drove for a layup, looking to cut the lead to one, but Mills stepped in to draw a charge, giving Central a crucial defensive stop and fouling West’s leading scorer out of the game.
“That was huge,” coach Cabe said. “There were so many huge plays and so many things that they did right. I’m so happy to see that team back.”
Central’s defense locked down West the rest of the way to seal the trip to the second round.