Nash Central point guard Ni’Ya Styles intercepted a Rocky Mount High inbounds pass in her own backcourt, sprinted up the court, evaded a defender with a skillful behind-the-back dribble and set up a teammate for a wide-open bucket to tie the game at 51 with 2:58 remaining, bringing the Bulldogs’ crowd to full volume.
It looked like an exciting finish was on the way, but Rocky Mount guard Carmen Richardson sapped the energy out of the fans and the Bulldogs – and was happy to do so. Richardson went on a nine-point run by herself, hitting seven free throws in the final 2:41 to give the Gryphons a 60-53 victory in the semifinals of the Nash County Christmas Tournament on Tuesday at Northern Nash High School.
“I knew that it was close, and me being one of the captains, I needed to think and make smart choices,” Richardson said of Styles’ tying play. “I knew in that situation – we’ve got a young group – I needed the ball in my hands to let them know everything’s OK. They trusted in me, and I’m glad they did.”
Richardson scored 11 points of her game-high 24 in the final quarter to put Rocky Mount (6-2) in the tournament’s championship game Thursday. After the Bulldogs tied the game, Richardson went to the line four separate times and made seven of her eight free throws.
With the Gryphons earning stops on the other end, Richardson’s burst was enough to win the game.
“Physically, I don’t think they could guard me. I’m not the quickest player out there, but I can use my strength to get the basket,” Richardson said. “You can kill somebody’s spirit by making free throws. When you foul me, it’s like it’s free. It’s just like a lay-up to me.”
Nash Central (6-2) went on an 11-0 run to take a seven-point lead with just more than a minute remaining in the third quarter. From that point, the Bulldogs were outscored, 24-10.
The Bulldogs grabbed only 16 rebounds against Rocky Mount.
“That was the problem right there,” Nash Central coach Terri Cash said. “Until we decide we want the ball more and we’re going to box out, we’re going to struggle.”
Keyanna Spivey scored 13 points for Rocky Mount, while Styles led Nash Central with 15. Deztanie Hill added 14 for Nash Central.
The encouraging part for Gryphons coach Pam Gainey came in the first quarter, when the Gryphons played up-tempo to match Nash Central, an important step with fast-paced Northern Nash up next.
“We definitely are going to have to run, there’s no doubt about that,” Gainey said. “We have to be able to play at that pace. It was just good to see because we’ve been kind of stagnant in our scoring this year.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com