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The Hunt High varsity girls basketball team, in Thursday night’s second-round test in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs, struggled to rebound, box out and finish layups.
Downfalls in those area led to struggles with composure and a 53-43 loss to Cameron Union Pines, the No. 9 seed among 32 East Region qualifiers, in the Hunt High gym.
The Lady Warriors, seeded No. 8 and champions from the Big East Conference, exited with a 16-8 record, while Union Pines, from the Tri-County Conference, advances into a Saturday sectional final with a 21-7 mark. The Lady Vikings, Tri- County tournament queens, extended their winning streak to nine games and won for the 12th time in the last 13 starts.
“They were very aggressive,” disappointed second-year Hunt head coach Tiffany Parks said of Union Pines. “Fundamentally, they did really well. We lost it because we didn’t box out, rebound and make our layups. If we had made half our layups, we would have beat them by 20 points. We had attitude issues, but is that any different? We just didn’t want it as bad as the other team.”
The Lady Vikings of head coach Greg Mayer rely heavily upon the one-two punch of 5-foot-11 senior Sarah Kelly and 5-8 junior Hadiya Balser.
Averaging a combined 28.6 points and 17.5 rebounds per contest, Kelly and Balser didn’t disappoint. Kelly netted 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Balser fired in 17 points and pulled down a whopping 21 rebounds, including 13 in the final quarter.
Union Pines, which reached the second round last season, won a scrapping, physical fray. The Lady Vikings committed 24 turnovers as compared to 22 for Hunt. The Lady Warriors were beaten 54-37 off the backboards. Hunt connected on 16 of 47 shots from the floor for 34-percent accuracy, and Union Pines knocked down 20 of 52 for 38 percent. Union Pines sank 14 of 26 free throws as compared to 8 of 18 for Hunt.
“They were playing really physical,” Kelly said of Hunt. “They were playing us a little harder than what we are accustomed. They were pressing, and it was hard to get the ball up the floor. But we came together and started playing our game. If we play our game, we usually come out on top.”
Momentum shifted decisively in the Lady Vikings’ favor midway the third quarter.
A three-point play and field goal from Kelly vaulted Union Pines to a 36-30 margin. Hunt drew as close as 38-36 on a 3-pointer from Kayla Kent, its only senior, and that score stood after three quarters.
However, the Lady Warriors did not score in the fourth quarter until 4:01 remained and, behind Balser and Kelly, the Lady Vikings forged a 50-40 margin with 2:30 remaining on Kelly’s bucket. Hunt crept no closer than eight points from that point.
Kent ended her career with 10 points and five rebounds.
Creating a frightening tempo, Hunt impressed at the start, racing to 6-2, 9-5 and 17-12 leads behind sophomore Brianna Tucker. But the Lady Vikings’ Balser became all but unstoppable and Hunt’s lead after one quarter was 17-16.
The Lady Warriors resorted to a box-and-one defense against Balser in the second quarter, limiting her to a 3-pointer. But neither Parks nor the Lady Vikings considered the tactic effective.
“We tried everything,” Parks admitted. “But if the whole team does not box out, (the box-and-one) does not work. Their shooters were getting their own rebounds. That was the whole game.”
Noted Kelly: “We put (Balser) in the corner and moved the post (6-1 junior Laura Middleton) up top; she handles the ball well. We swung the ball and moved well.”
That’s when Kelly became an offensive force after a frustrating opening quarter.
“(Hunt) didn’t realize we are more than one player,” Kelly declared, “and that we are a whole team. I was frustrated and wasn’t playing well. I had to suck it up, stay focused and play as hard as I could.”
Hunt, despite a parade of unfinished drives, still managed a 26-23 halftime lead on sophomore Bria Griffith’s bucket and three free throws from junior Tatiana Smith. But by then, sulking tendencies had surfaced among the Lady Warriors, The Lady Vikings, said Kelly, sensed as much.
“We just locked in, focused and played our game,” she said.
Of composure issues, Parks explained: “We were not getting the calls. That got to them emotionally because they knew they were doing the right thing. The calls changed at the end of the game, and it was hard to come back from that. It’s just very disappointing the game can get changed from how it’s supposed to be — especially at home. It seemed like we did not have the home-court advantage.”
But Hunt fans fumed at the attitudes of Lady Warriors players.
“I hope we can all mature from this season,” Parks expressed. “Attitudes are better this year than they were last year. Maybe next year, they will be at a minimum.”
UNION PINES (53)
Ring 4, Middleton 8, Bowbliss 3, Tyner 5, Kelly 16, Balser 17, Evans, Schmitz.
Griffith 6, Jones 2, McNeil, Tucker 6, Lucas 7, Spells, Smith 5, Sutton 7, Kent 10.
Score by quarters: