The opening week of the NCHSAA playoffs, when the first three rounds are held, has been unkind to Northern Nash during the past two years. Both 2012 and 2013 saw the Knights eliminated in heartbreaking fashion during the opening week of the playoffs, a stall out before the regional rounds.
This time, the Knights played like a team that not only wanted to go to Fayetteville but also needed it.
And to Fayetteville they will go.
The second-seeded Knights jumped on No. 10 seed Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons and never faltered, protecting their lead and winning, 59-41, in a third-round game Friday at Northern Nash High School.
Northern Nash now has won 26 straight games, and its players believe Friday was its best performance yet.
“I thought all week we were getting better and better and better,” Northern Nash coach Grover Battle said. “Obviously, (Friday) we had to play well to beat a good team.”
The Knights (26-1) started almost perfectly. Guard Alexus Hill made her first two shots, forward Kiana Thomas was a factor immediately and the Knights’ defense was effective. Northern Nash did not turn over the ball in the first quarter, allowed one field goal and led, 17-4, after eight minutes.
Shortly into the second quarter, the Knights led by 16.
“We knew where our weaknesses were and we knew where our strengths were, and we pushed them,” Hill said. “We pushed them on defense, and we pushed them on offense.”
Olivia Smith hit three straight jumpers – two three-pointers and a long two – for the Crusaders (23-7) as part of a 10-0 run that brought Cardinal Gibbons back into the game.
The Crusaders, who had completed two big comebacks to make the third round, fell too far behind Friday. The Knights went on an 8-0 run to end the second quarter, and the margin was back to 16 at halftime.
“We were right in it,” Cardinal Gibbons coach Jessica Lowe said of the Crusaders’ 10-0 run. “Our playoff run has kind of been about that. We’ve been down and come back. Our comeback kind of ended (Friday).”
The Crusaders had the lead down to 11 by the fourth quarter and came within nine on Madison Beuris’ lay-up early in the fourth quarter, but the Knights’ defense kept Cardinal Gibbons from establishing any sort of rhythm, particularly around the basket.
With Hill (16 points, seven rebounds) and Thomas (15 points, 15 rebounds) giving the Knights consistent offense, the Crusaders couldn’t make up that much ground.
“We dug ourselves a hole in the first quarter, and when you dig yourself that big of a hole, every offensive rebound, every turnover is magnified,” Lowe said. “(Thomas) is fantastic inside, a really great rebounder, and (Hill) is a great player. They held up their end of the bargain.”
Northern Nash outrebounded Cardinal Gibbons, 43-16.
Cardinal Gibbons made only five two-point field goals in four quarters.
“That’s big. We knew they were not as physical as we were, perhaps, and we were taller,” Battle said. “Not only that, their scheme did not allow them to rebound because they were three-point shooters.”
Everyone in Northern Nash’s regular rotation had a part in the win. Suzie Sykes scored 10 points, Alexia Hines had eight points and seven assists and Kayla Tucker had six points and six rebounds off the bench.
Heading into the regional round, the Knights believe that type of game will be important for them.
“(We’re) playing as a team and not trying to be individuals,” Thomas said.
Northern Nash will play third-seeded West Craven on Tuesday in Fayetteville. West Craven beat Fayetteville Terry Sanford, 59-50, on Friday in its third-round game.
The Knights will have to worry about West Craven guard Jamie Cherry, a North Carolina commit who is averaging more than 30 points per game so far this season.
Hill, who went to the regional finals a freshman, said she has made it her mission to go back again.
“I told the girls, ‘What I’m doing now is for all of you to see what I felt like my freshman year,’” Hill said. “That experience taught me you can’t have breakdowns. You have to stay together and stay together the whole way.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com