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Two of the three basketball teams from The Wilson Times readership area remaining in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs face tall orders, at least from a seeding perspective, in reaching next week’s regional semifinals.
As the higher seed, the other will encounter a unique, dangerous style of play capable of staggering unprepared opponents.
Both the Hunt High girls and the Southern Nash boys will take road trips in Saturday’s third round, with the No. 7-seeded Lady Warriors traveling to the Triad to battle No. 2 Southeast Guilford. Southern Nash, as the lowest remaining 3-A boys seed in the field at No. 25, gets the challenge of top-seeded Durham Hillside. In Snow Hill, No. 2 seed and defending 2-A East regional champion Greene Central takes on the collection of 3-point rowdiness known as Kill Devil Hills First Flight.
The Hunt-Southeast Guilford game begins at 6, with Southern Nash-Hillside and Greene Central-First Flight set for 7.
It hasn’t necessarily been the easiest playoff road for Hunt, but the Lady Warriors find themselves at the goal they set out at the beginning of the postseason — reach the third round. Hunt’s only other trip this deep into the girls basketball postseason came in 1998.
Hunt, which is in the midst of its best season in program history at 22-3, outlasted No. 26 seed Burlington Williams 54-52 in overtime before pulling away in the second half for a 60-50 victory at home over No. 23 Southern Durham.
“I’m so proud of the girls and humbled,” Parks said of hitting the Hunt girls all-time wins record.
Hunt’s catalyst during its two playoff wins has been the play of junior Imani Sutton. Sutton, the Most Valuable Player of the Big East Conference tournament, has combined for 43 points in the two wins and has become the primary option when the Lady Warriors need a basket in a crucial sequence.
“We’ve known for three years that Imani can put the ball in the basket when she wants to,” Parks said. “We’re just glad that she’s stepped up this last part of the season.”
When Parks took the Hunt job three seasons ago, she immediately installed a pressure defense that ramped up after made baskets. Two points from the Lady Warriors could become four or six in short order. But as Hunt’s personnel has evolved over the years, Parks has backed away from liberal use of the press, instead relying on the knowledge base she’s diligently worked to install since day one. A Bryson Lee, who could demand adherence to the press, isn’t the same as a Kayla Kent, who excels more in picking up at half court.
“When I came in with the girls, they were so young,” Parks said. “Some of the veterans that have been playing were taught the same thing, and that’s what they did every game. I came in, and now we have a variety of options. As the years have progressed, we can run everything. People underestimate us — we don’t run a 2-3 (zone) every game. You don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Indeed, that was evident in the second half of the win over Southern Durham, when Hunt switched to a box-and-one to try to limit the Lady Spartans’ Taylor Robinson after spending the first part of the game in a 1-3-1. The Lady Warriors closed play on an 11-0 run to win by 10.
Hunt’s defense received a boost with the return of junior Brianna Tucker from a neck injury against Southern Durham, and Parks believes her bench will be a secret weapon against the Falcons (24-3). Freshman Ariyana Carlton and junior Dylia Lucas, the latter of which has moved into the starting lineup, give Hunt the ability to adequately address opposing post players. Senior Shaniah Spells, often under the radar when others aren’t in foul trouble, doesn’t make many defensive errors.
Three players average double figures in scoring for Southeast Guilford, led by the 18.6 points per game of Kennedi Simmons. A freshman, Raven Preston, drew comparisons to Hunt junior Bria Griffith with her stature and usage in Southern Guilford’s offense.
However, there’s no intent to end the season Saturday night from Hunt.
“We just have to play together,” Parks said. “And I think they are the better team. I just think they need to work as a team and be unselfish.”
FIREBIRDS BACK FOR MORE
Outside of Northern Nash, no Big East team has won more conference games in the last two years than Southern Nash. But misfortune in games with seeding implications have knocked the Firebirds down a playoff peg in that span.
Southern Nash was a win away against Fike in the Big East semifinal of having a higher seed and potentially a first-round home game. But instead, the No. 25 seed Firebirds (16-9) completed the three-game season sweep of Hunt to reach the third round after springing the upset of No. 8 West Carteret, the Coastal Conference champion, in the opening round.
Back in the third round for the first time since 2015-16, Southern Nash will have the task of toppling No. 1 East seed Durham Hillside (27-1). But citing the schedule the Firebirds have played, Southern Nash head coach Robbie Kennedy expects a battle-tested group to be ready to play.
“We’ve played good people,” Kennedy reminded. “Northern (Nash) is 27-1 so the fact that we’re playing Hillside as the No. 1 seed, really there isn’t much difference between 1, 2, 3 and 4.”
The Firebirds, triggered by their guard play and a loyal fan following on the road, is led by seniors Darius Edmundson and Artavius Allen in the backcourt. Edmundson can be an explosive playmaker off the dribble, while Allen is typically the basis of healthy shooting nights from 3-point range from the Firebirds. Juniors A.J. Jones and Michael Parker have shown flashes from beyond the arc, and Kennedy contends Southern Nash will have to shoot well to advance once more. Rebounding will be critical for a team without a multitude of size, but ball handling late in games is in abundance, as well as efficiency from the foul line.
Without the aid of MaxPreps stats, Kennedy doesn’t know a lot about the Hornets other than they’re “athletic and play a lot of guys.”
Nevertheless, Southern’s objective has been to reach the final four minutes within two possessions at worst — and allow its guard play to take over late.
“We’re going to have to shoot the ball well,” Kennedy said. “We played at Eastern Alamance, started bad and couldn’t make shots. It was uphill from there.”
Greene Central has senior Imajae Dodd, a triple-double threat who has signed with UNC Wilmington. The Rams also have alumnus and former NBA player Theodore “Blue” Edwards leading the way in his first season.
But the brand of basketball entering the Rams’ gym Saturday is unlike anything seen in North Carolina. First Flight, ripping a page out of the book of former Virginia Military Institute and current Citadel head coach Duggar Baucom, will bring a band of shooters to town that have zero reservations about firing up 3-point shots — in bunches. Double-digit makes from 3-point range are expected from First Flight, coached by the innovative Chad Williams. All five players on the floor have Williams’ blessing to shoot the three at anytime or use the offense’s natural spacing to drive to the basket for a layup.
Should the Rams survive First Flight, it will take on the winner of No. 6 Hertford County and No. 19 Carrboro in the fourth round.
An Eastern final with unbeaten and No. 1 seed Farmville Central remains a possibility.