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Gryphons sweep Bulldogs in rivalry matchup

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Rocky Mount High's Nadirah Harmon, center, looks to pass while being defended by Nash Central's Katya Fox, right, and Anna Shaye Thompson during the game Tuesday at Rocky Mount High School.

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BY SAMUEL EVERS
Sports Writer

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The last time Nash Central and Rocky Mount played, it was a 17-point Gryphons win last season in the third round of the NCHSAA playoffs.

This time, in the second game of the season for both of these new-look teams, it was much tighter, but Rocky Mount, behind five clutch free-throws down the stretch of the final minute by Mya Pittman, held on again for a 60-55 victory.

The Gryphons, off a 22-4 record and a run to the tournament’s fourth round round in 2016-17, improved to 1-1 on the year, having dropped the opener to East Wake this past Saturday. Nash Central fell to 0-2.

Pittman’s free-throws twice pushed the lead over the Bulldogs from two to four in the final 30 seconds. Her cool play late, plus a few clutch baskets by Jada Morris in the fourth quarter, were welcome signs for head coach Pam Gainey. The two juniors are amongst the players Gainey hopes will help fill holes after graduating six important players from last year’s successful team.

“That was a big moment for (Pittman). She’s been behind other guards her whole career,” Gainey said. “To be in at the end was a new experience for her and I thought she did well.

Pittman finished with a team-high 22, while Morris added 12, including six in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve got a lot of inexperience this year,” she continued. “That’s ok. But I’m looking for a group that can be smooth and find a rhythm. We hung in and did that.”

The contest was within a few points for virtually the entire game, with the first quarter ending in an 18-point tie. The Gryphons took a two-point lead into halftime, a margin they stretched to five by the end of the third quarter.

Paced by 23 from Robbi Allen, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, the Bulldogs kept hanging around, pulling with one point on three separate occasions in the fourth quarter alone.

The hump was never quite conquered, however, and despite five straight chances to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter, the lead for the Gryphons was never relinquished.

“I think it was a winnable game, the big thing is getting the reps in games like those,” Nash Central coach Terri Cash said. “Robbi hasn’t played basketball in over a year. She was out of some plays down the stretch. With her in, maybe there’s less missed layups or turnovers.

“But really, other than two players, we have really inexperienced players.”

The Bulldogs graduated five from last season’s 18-9 team, and much like Rocky Mount, there are far more questions than answers only two games in.

The key, said Cash, is approaching that fact in a positive way.

“We have great room for growth. I like our intensity, I like our effort. The things we do wrong, hopefully we can try and take care of in practice. We want to play good defense, be confident, run an offense. Just stick together.”

BOYS

Rocky Mount High 53

Nash Central 46

Nash Central’s football team finished its season on Nov. 17. Nash Central’s basketball team began its season on Nov. 21.

With all five starters gone from last season -- four to graduation and one to an injury -- plus seven players who were in pads less than two weeks ago now on the court, the beginning to the Bulldogs’ season had been, to state the obvious, a little bit of a whirlwind.

Entering Tuesday night at 0-1 against Rocky Mount, all of that may have added up to what became a third quarter 18-point deficit against the Gryphons.

Nash Central fought back, at one making it a one possession game with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, but Rocky Mount held on for a 53-46 victory.

“Our football players have had two practices total, so we’re trying to find out who deserves to start, who plays with who,” Nash Central coach Renny Taylor said. “We’re a work in progress. We’re figuring out we’re going to be.”

The comeback towards the end, said Taylor, was nice to see. But the persistent problems for most of the game -- a 24 percent shooting clip in the first half, a lethargic third quarter -- were emblematic of a team looking for an identity.

One of the new focal points in this brand new starting five, A.J. Styles, admitted as much -- replacing all of those guys from a 17-7 season is not going to be easy.

“It’s very hard, but we need the games. The more games I play, I’m going to fill into that leader spot,” said Styles, who finished with two points but was trusted to run the offense the whole game. “I’m getting there. It’s hard shoes to fill. But we in the second half, we started running plays, breaking the press. The layups started to come easy.”

For the Gryphons, who began their season on Tuesday, it’s the same story of a new team with different faces, but, as coach Mike Gainey pointed out, that might not be such a bad thing.

Rocky Mount was 10-12 last season. This year, he said, hasn't felt the same.

“We’ve got some kids who want to be here. Kids that are buying into what we want to do. They didn’t like last year’s season, either,” Gainey said. “I got a couple seniors up here who didn’t like last year, so we’re hungry, hopefully we can turn this thing around.

As for the contest on Tuesday, as a coach, Gainey couldn’t help but focus on the near comeback instead of the one-time 18-point lead.

“We can’t allow people to come back. There’s no need to work as hard as we worked and get the margin of lead that we got then allow a team to come back,” he said. “We just have to remain focused the whole game, the whole season.”

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