Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
ROCKY MOUNT — The fact that a championship team emerged for the second half of Friday’s 3-A Big East Conference girls basketball final is another testament to the mysterious, bipolar nature of the Hunt High Lady Warriors.
Before junior Imani Sutton came out and cemented Most Valuable Player honors in a 49-38 victory with a dominant second half against second-seeded Rocky Mount, the Lady Warriors were harried, sluggish and possessed poor attitudes in a first half that produced more turnovers (19) than points as Hunt trailed 20-16 at the half at Rocky Mount Event Center.
Instead, Hunt walked away with its first tournament title in Parks’ three-year tenure. After the Lady Warriors won the school’s first regular-season conference title since 1985 last season, the Big East did not hold its tournament last year.
“It definitely is a nerve-wracking fine line for sure,” Hunt head coach Tiffany Parks said. “Trying to make sure we get the right people in together and making sure we’re running the right things. The first half, we really weren’t running anything. If we ran one thing in the second half, I think it would have been progress.”
Sutton bucketed 20 of her 23 points in the second half and added eight rebounds, beginning and ending the third quarter with 3-pointers. In the interim, she banked in another trey and converted a pair of Lady Gryphon turnovers into layups as the top-seeded Lady Warriors, who won their 20th game of the season, took a 32-26 lead into the fourth quarter.
Once in the fourth quarter, Hunt was proficient at the free-throw line, making 15 of 19 during that span and 19 of 26 overall. Freshman Ariyana Carlton’s layup was the only Hunt field goal of the quarter as the Lady Warriors began to put Rocky Mount (18-7), the No. 2 seed, in foul trouble.
Carlton, along with junior Dylia Lucas, rebounded effectively and kept Hunt within striking distance in the first half. Lucas didn’t score, but pulled down eight of her 12 rebounds in the first half.
“We were just throwing up shots,” Sutton said of the opening half. “They were getting in our head a lot.”
But Hunt calmed down offensively after halftime, limiting its turnovers to just six. Parks credited Carlton with limiting Rocky Mount’s post play in the second half.
“That was definitely the breaking point of the first half,” Parks said of Hunt’s giveaways. “We talked about our defense and screens. Now that we know exactly what they’re running, we talked about the big and getting in front of her. That was a big difference, making sure we had (Carlton) on her.”
Sutton overcame early foul trouble prior to her outburst in the second half, getting her second personal foul just 13 seconds into the second quarter.
“As long as she doesn’t get in foul trouble, she’s typically on this season,” Parks said of Sutton. “I know in past seasons, she’s been up and down, but she’s really found her way as long as she stays in good foul status. She can really take over a game.”
Sutton was 7 for 9 from the line in the fourth quarter, while junior Bria Griffith made all four of her attempts. Carlton was 2 of 2 and senior Tatiana Smith, who staked Hunt to an early 11-5 lead before the Lady Warriors’ early stumble, was 2 for 4. Griffith and Smith were both named to the all-tournament team.
“At first, we came out kind of sluggish,” Sutton said. “But by the end of the game, we picked it up a lot.”
Hunt, which led by as many as 12, saw its lead chopped to 42-35 with 3:12 to go on a 3-pointer by Alexis Moore. But Sutton, who fought through the end of the game despite the nervous action of playing while biting her jersey, made three more free throws to keep the Lady Gryphons at bay. Mya Pittman led the Lady Gryphons with 14 points.
Well-regarded for its rebounding, Hunt ended play with a 38-27 edge in that department. A plus-seven margin in the first half, buoyed by Lucas, helped the Lady Warriors overcome the trials of an otherwise poor opening half.
Now, Hunt has designs on playing next Saturday — a feat that would have it in the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association postseason, which would represent another first in the Parks era.
“We’ve got a goal that we want to go farther than we did last year,” Parks said. “We really felt like we should have won the Union Pines game last year, so we’re hoping that we can extend that.”
But will the team from the first half or second half of Friday’s Big East championship show up?
ROCKY MOUNT (38)
Bullock, Moore 9, Wiggins, Hicks 4, Pittman 14, Morris 8, Coleman 2.
Griffith 9, McNeill, Thorpe, Rushing 2, Carlton 6, Norris, Spells, Smith 9, Sutton 23, Lucas.
Score by quarters:
Rocky Mount 11 9 6 12 — 38
Hunt 12 4 16 17 — 49