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ROCKY MOUNT — While the 1-2 combination of freshman Kayla Haley and senior Dylia Lucas do not necessarily garner the game-in, game-out highlights for the Hunt High varsity girls basketball team, their presence in the post undergoes increased scrutiny when Rocky Mount presents as the opponent.
And Friday night in the championship game of the 3-A Big East Conference tournament, the duo, along with the rest of their Hunt teammates, were saddled with the task of stopping the Lady Gryphons’ potent inside game, led by slender 5-foot-11 freshman forward Caroline Thiel.
Needing a win not for seeding purposes but to simply capture the regular-season series between the teams, Hunt collectively had no answer underneath the basket.
Thiel, who plays taller than her frame would bely, tormented the Lady Warriors for 28 points and marched to the free-throw line for a 10-for-12 showing as Rocky Mount towered past Hunt in the fourth quarter to grab a 75-63 victory.
Hunt, the No. 2 seed, dropped to 17-7 and likely awaits a home game in the opening round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs next week. Rocky Mount won for the 21st time in 25 games in winning two of three contests from Hunt this season.
“We knew what we needed to do,” Hunt head coach Tiffany Parks said of limiting Thiel. “They just couldn’t execute it. We just weren’t doing a good job boxing out or rebounding this game. Sometimes it’s a hit or miss.”
The Lady Warriors actually started well enough, jumping out to a 9-4 advantage on consecutive layups by senior Brianna Tucker and Haley. But that was quickly followed by what the Lady Warriors simply couldn’t have in this particular matchup.
In the midst of what become a 15-0 Rocky Mount run that carried over into the second quarter, Haley was hit with her second personal foul. Undeterred and playing without a timid streak, she proceeded to take a charge. However, the third personal followed before the end of the first quarter, and the run was in full force.
Thiel, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, was nothing short of a problem contorting inside and rebounding after the whistle blitzkrieg against Hunt. She toed the foul line in a 6-for-8 effort in the second period alone, and her teammates backed that proficiency.
“Twenty-eight points,” Parks lamented. “If we could have cut that in half to 14 points, we would have won the game. That was the difference. Last time she scored 10, this time she scored 28. And to be honest, half of it was from the free-throw line. She was definitely getting a lot of calls her way, and we weren’t getting very many back from her.”
Rocky Mount made its first 11 free throws as a team and went on to a staggering 26-for-29 display that was cemented with deep catches in the post and dominance on the offensive glass. Hunt went 24 of 35 from the line, including senior Bria Griffith’s 9-for-12 display.
The Lady Warriors remained within striking distance at halftime, trailing 32-26 and 36-30 on a runner from senior Imani Sutton. But already playing with three fouls, Sutton picked up her fourth trying to defend Rocky Mount’s Raina Bullock in front of the Lady Gryphon’s bench with just 1:43 elapsed in the second half. While Thiel continued to pound away at Hunt’s defense, Sutton’s temporary departure helped boosted Rocky Mount to a 51-42 lead entering the fourth.
“We lost to them last time we played,” Rocky Mount head coach Pam Gainey reminded. “We lost to them in the closing minute, and I just think the girls — we still struggled at the end, but we continued to score and the girls did a good job of hitting their free throws in the fourth quarter.”
Griffith’s runner at the buzzer temporarily brought the Hunt deficit into single digits.
However, Rocky Mount went 12 of 13 from the line in the fourth and amassed a lead that reached as many as 18. Griffith led the way with 17 points for Hunt, with Sutton and Tucker adding 15.
Maddison Mitchell had 14 points for Rocky Mount as one of four Lady Gryphons in double figures.
“Our down low (defense) is what was tearing us up,” Tucker said. “Those bigs. We’ve got to get stronger down low.”
Griffith 17, McNeil 1, Smith, Mercer 6, Haley 2, Tucker 15, Sutton 15, Lucas 7.
ROCKY MOUNT (75)
Graham 11, Wilkins, Moore 7, Powell 11, Mitchell 14, Thiel 28, Evans 2, Barnes 2.
Score by quarters:
Hunt 9 17 16 21 — 63
Rocky Mount 12 20 19 24 — 75