Grover Battle’s Northern Nash girls’ squad might have had the least to prove out of any program in the Big East that played Saturday afternoon.
The Knights already had clinched the league’s regular-season title and, along with it, the No. 1 seed for next week’s tournament at Rocky Mount High School.
Northern Nash’s driving force for its regular-season finale against Rocky Mount simply was pride, and when the Gryphons took a brief lead in the second half, the Knights responded in a manner it has grown accustomed to during the past two seasons.
An Alexus Hill jumper followed by three consecutive baskets by Susie Sykes helped Northern Nash reclaim its lead, and the Knights held the Gryphons to only a pair of field goals in the fourth quarter in a 57-45 victory.
Northern Nash (21-1, 9-0) finished its second consecutive Big East season with an undefeated record.
“It felt great – beating Rocky Mount is something everyone wants to do,” Sykes said. “Coach Battle always gives us a good pep talk to get ready for the game. He told us Rocky Mount was going to give it all they had.”
After trailing early, Rocky Mount (13-7, 8-2) clawed its way back into the game in the second quarter when Michelle Gainey and Shelby Meeks each knocked down a pair of three-point shots to keep the Gryphons close at halftime (29-26).
Rocky Mount carried a little momentum over into the first few minutes of the second half and led, 34-31, but Hill (25 points), Sykes (10 points) and Northern Nash reserves Jalia Williams and Kayla Tucker paced the Knights into a dominant final eight minutes of play.
“I thought our girls played hard and we endured,” Battle said. “We had a big lead and they came back. In the latter part of the third and fourth, we picked it up defensively, came together as a team and played hard.”
During a stretch of the final minutes, Gryphons coach Pam Gainey could only stare toward the floor in disappointment.
“Certain things that were supposed to happen fundamentally in the fourth quarter didn’t happen,” Gainey said. “We had mental collapses all ove rthe place. When you have miscues, there is going to be trouble. I’m disappointed.”
Michelle Gainey led the Gryphons with nine points. Leading scorer Carmern Richardson was held to six points.
Rocky Mount will be the No. 2 seed in the Big East Tournament.
Northern Nash, which has lost only 12 games in Hill’s four seasons, knows there is more to accomplish, especially against a rival it has lost to four times in the past two postseasons.
And if it takes overcoming a bloody lip – which Hill suffered during the game – to turn fortunes, the Knights’ lone senior is ready for the challenge.
“It’s the start of what we finished last year,” Hill said of the victory. “We have to carry it out and finish. It all starts next week.”
The Gryphons were too big, too quick, too ready to play early and simply too good Saturday.
Rocky Mount’s 16-point victory against rival Northern Nash was a warmup to what the Gryphons hope will be the beginning of big things for them in next week’s conference tournament.
Rocky Mount, which was led by Immanuel King (18 points) and Isaiah Alston (17 points), has only two blemishes on its conference record, and both are to Wilson Hunt.
“Since we lost that Hunt game, it has been a challenge that we have to wake back up and play each game,” Gryphons coach Mike Gainey said. “We fell into a trap early on where everyone was saying, ‘We’re going to win the states.’ We got big headed, and that caused problems for us, but we’re coming along right now.”
The Gryphons (14-7, 8-2) led by 14 points in the first quarter and by as many as 20 late in the game, and they seemed to score at will in a 28-point fourth quarter.
“We missed a whole lot of shots at the rim, but they altered shots with the size they had down there,” Knights coach Rick Ruffin said. “The biggest thing was the boards, we just couldn’t keep them off the glass. Late in the game, we just kind of got gassed in the end.”
D.J. Prunty paced Northern Nash (7-15, 1-8) with 24 points.
Jessie H. Nunery can be reached at 407-9959 or firstname.lastname@example.org