Free throw after free throw spun out of the basket, bounced off the rim or clanged off the back iron in the fourth quarter Monday as Eastern Guilford clawed its way back.
On any other night, a 6-for-19 effort from the free-throw line in the final eight minutes would have spelled doom and likely a loss.
In the first round of the NCHSAA 3-A state playoffs at Rocky Mount High, Rocky Mount already had answered the bell and its 22-point fourth-quarter lead was reduced only slightly to the 77-63 final score.
“From here on out, we’re not going to get the small fouls. You’re going to have to put the ball in,” Rocky Mount coach Mike Gainey said. “I think you still have to control the game, but these are young kids, and they want to fight back a little bit. We have to keep that under control. ... We’ve just got to maintain our composure.”
In one of the more physical games that Rocky Mount (16-8) has played this season, the Gryphons were challenged inside by the undersized Wildcats.
Center Immanuel King said it was the most physical game of the year, while forward Dante Battle likened it to a game against Hertford County earlier in the season.
“It shows the growth,” Battle said. “In the beginning, we’d back down from pressure, but since we are getting to the end and we know how to play with each other, it’s fine.”
The No. 11 Gryphons answered a physical first quarter, which included matching technical fouls for post-play chatter, with a 49-27 spurt through the second and third quarters.
“It’s a mind set – man up,” Battle said. “I just had to tell Iman, Jaquell (Bryant) and the rest of the team that we had to man up (Monday).”
The game also featured matching personal fouls when Isaiah Alston, who scored a team-high 27 points, tangled up with an Eastern Guilford player.
“They’ve got to get tougher,” said Gainey, who was proud of the way his team battled through the physicality. “... It’s something we have to deal with down the road. It’s going to get physical.”
Rocky Mount turned an 11-point halftime lead into 21 with a quick 10-0 spurt to start the second half. Eastern Guilford (16-9) never closed within 12 points during the remainder of the game.
Battle finished with 21 points, and King scored eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve gotta make the free throws, now,” said King, who went 2-for-6 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter. “We just couldn’t make the free throws.”
King was sure that Gainey would make the Gryphons, who will travel to Havelock on Wednesday, shoot extra free throws in practice.
Gainey implied differently, calling on his team to challenge itself.
“It’s just concentrating. That free-throw line is me against me,” Gainey said. “That’s one of the hardest things that these kids have to learn. In basketball, the best competition is to play against yourself.”
Rocky Mount is trying to make its fifth straight trip to the regional round in Fayetteville but is doing so with much less experience on its roster. Only Battle, King and Brod Caudle have significant playoffs experience.
“The ones that were here are trying to add a little light on what needs to be done to get to the next level,” Gainey said.
No. 11 Rocky Mount High 77
No. 22 Eastern Guilford 63
EG 15 12 15 21 – 63
RMH 14 24 25 14 – 77
EG: Quayson Williams (27 points); Terrell Pickett (13 points); Tre McLean (10 points); Kyrie Lundy (4 points); Caleb Robinson (3 points); Andrew Robinson (2 points); Yazid Laury (2 points); Jawara Mills (2 points).
RMH: Isaiah Alston (27 points); Dante Battle (21 points); Brod Caudle (12 points); Immanuel King (11 points); Jaequez Jones (2 points); Thomas Cooper (2 points); Aumir Pittman (2 points).
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or email@example.com