A big smile washed over the face of Northern Nash girls’ basketball coach Grover Battle as he walked into the school’s gymnasium following his team’s first-round playoffs victory Monday night.
Battle wasn’t smiling because his team had just completed a 50-point win.
For a few seconds, Battle thought about how far girls’ basketball has come, and how filled his team’s gymnasium is going to be tonight for a second-round playoffs matchup against rival Rocky Mount High.
The two squads will meet for a fifth time at 7 tonight, and the bragging rights are at their apex.
The winner will advance to the sectional finals, while the loser will go home knowing that their biggest rival sent them there.
Despite the hype that has surrounded this rivalry, particularly in the past two years – Rocky Mount High won four of the five meetings last season, including a third-round playoffs game – Battle knows that the game will come down to which team plays the best basketball.
“We’re going to be excited, but we also need to calm down,” Battle said. “You want to be mature and experienced about the game you are playing. It can lead to a lot of fouls and shots you don’t want to take. We need to be focused in the early part of the game.”
Northern Nash (22-1), boosted by an experienced squad, dominated the regular season and finished 20-0 to win the Big East Conference regular-season title.
Rocky Mount (16-9) came out of the starting blocks slower than usual this season. The Gryphons finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Big East. A hot streak that has spanned six games, including an overtime victory against Northern Nash in the conference tournament finals, has Rocky Mount playing its best ball of the season.
When the playoffs brackets were released Saturday, the two squads were placed into the same pod.
“I did not (expect to play them), but that’s what it is,” Rocky Mount coach Pam Gainey said. “At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter whether we are first, fifth, sixth, 10th or 16th. That just seems to happen.”
Coaches and fans statewide have questioned such a system that has conference opponents facing off so early in the playoffs, but in the end, players are in agreement about the game.
“I don’t have a problem playing anybody,” Rocky Mount guard Carmen Richardson said. “We have to go far. We have five games left. We have to go against anybody they put us against. We are going to be ready for whoever they have.”
Northern Nash center Jordan Oldham had the same mentality.
“It’s just the next step to get to the third game,” Oldham said. “There probably will be a lot of people talking about it, but for us, it’s just another game. We have to go beat them.”
With that said, the sum of the season is not equal to tonight’s game. That will show in the amount of people who likely gather well before tip-off to grab a spot in the bleachers.
It will speak greater volumes when one of the teams practices Thursday afternoon for an even bigger game Friday.
“Either you lose and you go home, or you keep playing,” Richardson said. “This one matters the most. Nothing else matters.”
Sports writer Justin Hite contributed to this article. Jessie H. Nunery can be reached at 407-9959 or jhnunery@ rmtelegram.com