Special to LTN
PUMPKIN CENTER â€” North Lincoln coach Lynn Rhyne looked at the scoreboard during the second quarter Friday night and signaled for a timeout.
Her team was in a situation it hadnâ€™t found itself in much of the past monthâ€”a tight ballgame. But with the score tied with just less than six minutes to play in the half, she sent her Lady Knights back on the floor to do what theyâ€™d done in the past 13 gamesâ€”put their opponent away.
They did just that, pulling away from Lake Norman Charter in the championship game of the Southern Piedmont 1A/2A tournament for a 66-54 victory.
â€œThe girls set their goals from the very beginning,â€ said Rhyne, whose team has won 14 in a row and 32 straight against conference opponents. â€œThey wanted to win conference. They wanted to win the conference tournament. Now their goal is to go as far as they can in the state playoffs.â€
It starts tonight against Black Mountain Owen at 7 p.m. on their home court. The Lady Knights earned the No. 4 seed in the 2A West bracket.
Fridayâ€™s victory was a solid test for North Lincoln, which beat Lake Norman Charter three times this season by an average of 14.6 points. When Lake Norman Charterâ€™s 6-foot-2 center Ezinne Mbamalu (18 points) put back a Carolyn Huddy miss to tie the game at 17-17, it was apparent LNC wasnâ€™t going to be satisfied with tournament runner-up.
After Rhyne called timeout, sophomore Ace Easter went to work, scoring nine points in a 16-3 run that gave North Lincoln a lead that would hold the rest of the way. When Lainey Livernois buried a three-pointer from the corner with 7 seconds to go in the half, it gave North Lincoln (21-4) a 37-24 halftime advantage.
Easter did the heavy lifting, scoring in about every way imaginable on her way to a career-high 37 points.
â€œSometimes the switch just turns on with her,â€ Rhyne said.
It didnâ€™t turn off in the championship game. Easter scored 19 points in the opening half and had at least seven in each quarter. She used her size and quickness to beat every Lake Norman Chater defender who braved to guard her. She hit 11 of 20 field-goal attempts and was 15 of 17 from the foul line.
â€œAll game, Iâ€™ll take it to the basket. It doesnâ€™t matter to me when it is,â€ Easter said.
Even in the third quarter, when Mbamalu scored five consecutive points to cut North Lincolnâ€™s lead to 45-41, Easter was there. She stole a Lake Norman Chater pass and converted a three-point play. She then found Lauren Armstrong under the basket to build North Lincolnâ€™s lead to 50-41 entering the final quarter.
â€œShe is in her own; she is in her element,â€ Rhyne marveled at Easterâ€™s performance. â€œShe definitely is.â€
Stephanie Wooten was spectacular distributing the ball Friday and added 10 points for North Lincoln. Livernois scored nine.
Wooten said her team has high expectations. The Lady Knights havenâ€™t lost since a Dec. 30 setback against Bandys and theyâ€™re not ready to have that feeling again.
â€œGo for it in the playoffs,â€ Wooten said of whatâ€™s next. â€œWin stateâ€”hopefully. But we have to play hard.â€