PUMPKIN CENTER â€” The North Lincoln Lady Knights appeared poised to run away with their semifinal Southern Piedmont Conference tournament game with the West Lincoln Lady Rebels on Wednesday.
The Lady Knights took a 14-2 lead through the opening four minutes of play, but the Lady Rebels battled back to within six points with two minutes remaining in the first quarter. North Lincoln pulled ahead in the second half to win 75-42 and advance to the conference tournament championship game against Lake Norman Charter, who defeated Lincolnton 55-48 in the semifinals on Wednesday.
â€œI think it was a positive that we didnâ€™t give up after the 14-2 lead North Lincoln had in the first quarter,â€ West Lincoln head coach Holly Specht said. â€œThey came back, and at halftime we were only down by 12 and they started playing a little bit better. We started playing defense; at first we werenâ€™t rotating back on defense at all. I jumped on them during a timeout and they finally started picking it up a bit better.â€
Erica Webb cut North Lincolnâ€™s lead down to six points with a jumper at the 2:53 mark, but North Lincolnâ€™s Antaijah Easter responded with two free throws to push her teamâ€™s lead back to eight. Molly Leatherman sunk two free throws moments later to knock the deficit back down to six, but Easter hit a fast break layup and a free throw to give the Lady Knights a 19-10 advantage. Easter knocked down two field goals with 30 seconds left in the first quarter, and West Lincolnâ€™s Brook Hudson drained a long-range three-pointer at the buzzer to put the Lady Rebels down 25-15.
North Lincoln head coach Lynn Rhyne was quick to praise the tenacity of the Lady Rebels after the game.
â€œWest Lincoln kept the game moving, they had good shots that fell and they played good defense on us,â€ she said. â€œMy girls are just having to keep working hard every game and everything we do theyâ€™re learning from. There we a couple of times that we had a mental break with our offense. The girls got back into it, thank goodness, but West Lincoln really gave us a great ballgame.â€
Specht said she felt the Lady Rebels missed a couple of those â€œmental breakâ€ openings, and hope to focus her teamâ€™s defense ahead of the NCHSAA 2A state playoffs, which begin on Monday.
â€œI just donâ€™t feel like we took advantage of all of the opportunities that we had,â€ she said. â€œWeâ€™re going to work on some defense and rotating back before the playoffs. Last night we couldnâ€™t stop the fast break like I wanted to. I have a feeling that the teams weâ€™re going to play are going to try to push the ball like North Lincoln did.â€
The Lady Knights matched West Lincolnâ€™s entire second half production in the third quarter, with 16 points. North Lincoln pulled ahead even further in the fourth, outscoring the Lady Rebels 21-6.
Rhyne said she didnâ€™t expect North Lincolnâ€™s tournament championship game against Lake Norman Charter today to be an easy task, even though North Lincoln won both regular season contests, 68-55 on Jan. 10 and 57-38 on Feb. 7. The Lady Knights will have to contend with Lake Norman Charterâ€™s Ezinne Mbamalu, a 6-foot-2-inch sophomore center who logged a double-double against Lincolnton on Wednesday.
â€œTheyâ€™re going to be tough, I think theyâ€™re getting ready for us,â€ she said. â€œThey played a good game against Lincolnton, and I thought Lincolnton played a good game, but Lake Norman Charterâ€™s players are starting to step up a little bit more on some of their offensive boards, so itâ€™s going to be a tough game.
The last couple of times weâ€™ve played them weâ€™ve doubled down on Mbamalu, but again, sheâ€™s a good player and sheâ€™s going to get those offensive rebounds. You have to stop her from doing that.â€
Leatherman led West Lincoln in scoring with 17 points, and made 7 of 10 free throw attempts. Taylor Sutton finished second with 12 points, followed by Webbâ€™s eight points.
Easter paced the Lady Knights with 31 points, 15 coming in the first quarter, and hit eight of 10 free throw attempts. Lauren Armstrong finished second 14 points, followed by Sarah Barrâ€™s 13 points with three three-pointers.