With 20 seconds to play, Rocky Mount High point guard Carmen Richardson walked to her teammate hunched over in exhaustion at the free-throw line Wednesday.
Richardson placed one hand on each side of fellow senior J’Kyra Brown’s face with the Gryphons ahead by just two points. She told Brown to make Northern Nash pay for sending her to the free-throw line.
Brown had grown accustomed to spoiling Northern Nash’s hopes.
So with cold blood – chilled from three years of ruining the Knights’ dreams – Brown knocked down both free throws and two more with 12 seconds to play as Rocky Mount defeated its biggest rival, 56-53, in the second round of the NCHSAA 3-A girls’ basketball state playoffs inside Northern Nash High School.
“It (has) been a heated game ever since (Brown has) been in the ninth grade,” Rocky Mount coach Pam Gainey said. “You never can get used to that. That atmosphere is incredible.”
Still, Brown looked comfortable, even at a place that troubled No. 2 Northern Nash (22-2), which has lost just six games in the past two years – all against Rocky Mount.
Brown finished with a game-high 32 points despite playing the entire second half with three fouls. She picked up her fourth foul with 1:23 to play.
“Early in the season, when we had to take J’Kyra out, it was like, ‘Oh God,’” Gainey said.
That all has changed, but worn out from playing all but three minutes of the second half, Brown never heard Richardson tell her to make the Knights pay.
The only thing she heard was Richardson’s guarantee that the No. 7 Gryphons (17-9) had her back.
“When she has confidence on the line, we all have confidence,” Richardson said. “We have to know that she can knock them down and believe in her.
“I believe in her.”
Brown finished Northern Nash off from the free-throw line, where the Knights went 11-for-31, including five misses in the final 1:51.
“We try to make sure that they shoot them (at practice), and we’ve been doing pretty good with them most of the time with our free-throw shooting in crucial situations,” said Northern Nash coach Grover Battle, who had the Knights shoot free throws during practice Tuesday. “But (Wednesday), it hurt us not hitting the free throws.”
Camille Branch missed one of two free throws with two seconds to play, but down by four points, there was nothing that could have been done in one trip to the line. Northern Nash’s previous dozen trips hurt them more.
When Rocky Mount inbounded the ball after Branch’s make, the Gryphons had pulled the two more important wins out of the rivalry – the conference tournament championship and the playoffs matchup.
With two fists raised in the air, Richardson celebrated at center court.
For the second straight season, Rocky Mount ended Northern Nash’s title hopes.
“It came down to our heart (Wednesday) and our intensity,” said Richardson, who finished with 14 points, nine in the first half. “We kept telling coach Gainey that we were going to play with enthusiasm and intensity.”
Rocky Mount will travel to No. 3 seed West Craven (24-5) on Friday night.
The Gryphons defeated West Craven, which is led by UNC commit Jamie Cherry, last season on the way to an appearance in the Eastern Regional Championship.
The two teams traded early runs in the first half Wednesday, Rocky Mount opening the game with a 14-2 spurt before the Knights, who led for just 1:50, scored eight points in the first minute of the second quarter, and 10 straight, to pull with one point.
The Knights took their first lead with 3:54 to play in the first half but lost the advantage when Richardson knocked down a floater and Brown hit a 3-pointer from the corner.
Even with Brown out of the game for the final 1:55 of the first half, Northern Nash couldn’t trim a 3-point deficit.
Brown hit back-to-back 3s to start the second half, but when Northern Nash took only its second lead of the game, Richardson hit a lay-in and Takeyra Thomas knocked down a deep jumper.
Northern Nash tied the game, 50-50, with 1:23 to play when Quinesha Lynch, who scored 12 points, knocked down 1-of-2 from the line. Alexus Hill’s 16 points led Northern Nash.
Brown’s layup 10 seconds later gave the Gryphons the lead for good.
“It was a very good win,” Richardson said. “I must say it meant a lot, but we must keep going. They’re not the only team. We have to keep going. We have four more games.”
No. 7 Rocky Mount High 56
No. 2 Northern Nash 53
RMH 19 11 12 14 – 56
NN 8 19 15 11 – 53
RMH: J’Kyra Brown (32 points); Carmen Richardson (14 points); Kelsey Daniels (5 points); Takeyra Thomas (4 points); Kyler Daniels (1 point).
NN: Alexus Hill (16 points); Quinesa Lynch (12 points); Camille Branch (8 points); Khadrijah Richardson (5 points); Deja Lewis, Jordan Oldham (4 points); Alexia Hines (3 points); Shakyia Mercer (1 point).
Leaders: RMH – Brown (7 rebounds, 3 assists). NN – Branch (10 rebounds); Mercer, Lynch (2 assists).
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org