FAYETTEVILLE – Suzie Sykes nailed a three-pointer for the first points of the fourth quarter, and Northern Nash’s bench exploded: The dream season had a prayer.
Down six, the Knights had a chance, and so far this year, they have prevailed in every tough fourth quarter. With another one in sight, the Knights’ hopes were crushed quickly.
West Craven buried a three, then made a breakaway lay-up.
The Knights cut it to seven and revived their hopes, only for West Craven star Jamie Cherry to spin through the lane and make a lay-up. Another Eagles lay-up made it an 11-point hole, and the Northern Nash side knew.
A special season was finished.
Third-seeded West Craven held on, 57-45, to beat the No. 2 seed Knights in the NCHSAA 3-A Eastern Regional semifinals Wednesday at Crown Coliseum, giving Northern Nash its first loss since November, a span of 27 games.
“Even when teams got close in the fourth quarter, we’ve somehow maintained to do it and had intestinal fortitude to push away from them,” Northern Nash coach Grover Battle said. “We did everybody that way throughout the whole year. I even thought we were going to come back right then (Wednesday).”
Jamie Cherry, a North Carolina commit, scored 35 points on 11-for-26 shooting, putting on a display that showed why the Eagles (27-1) have made three straight trips to Fayetteville.
But it was the internal struggles that hurt the Knights (26-2).
Alexus Hill and Suzie Sykes both had three fouls at halftime and eventually fouled out, as did reserve guard Jahlia Williams.
Hill, the Knights’ leading scorer, was limited to 17 minutes and four points on 1-for-9 shooting because of foul trouble.
Even with Hill on the bench for nearly the entire second quarter, CeCe Harrison scored five points, Alexia Hines hit a three and the Knights went into halftime tied at 24.
“When I saw they kept pushing and kept pushing, that’s when I knew they got my message throughout the season, that I’m leaving and it’s time for you to step up,” Hill said.
But with Sykes and Hill in trouble, the Eagles saw their window.
“It was – I don’t want to say fuel to the fire – we were excited to see it, I guess,” West Craven coach David Fernandez said. “We knew (Hill) and (Sykes) were their shooters, and they shot 3-of-9 (from three) in the first half. … In this arena, we played to the percentages that it wasn’t going to last into the fourth quarter.”
Without two of its top three scorers, Northern Nash didn’t have the capability to push past West Craven.
Northern Nash was able to hold West Craven in place for much of the third quarter and even make two brief runs, but the Knights couldn’t employ their signature press to create easy baskets. Their regular perimeter scorers couldn’t help them, and the Knights had to try a zone to match up with Cherry, a move that proved futile.
“I thought we played, overall, played hard and played well, but we just couldn’t counter some of the things happening out there on the floor without some of the people we had,” Battle said. “Of course, we couldn’t press or put some pressure on them. … With everybody in foul trouble, that kept us from doing what we needed to.”
Kiana Thomas led Northern Nash with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Alexia Hines had 10 points.
The Knights thought it was an unfitting end for Hill, who will graduate soon and head to Gardner-Webb on a basketball scholarship.
The playoffs have an unpredictable and often cruel nature, but Northern Nash believed this team deserved a little better than what it received Wednesday.
“We have a winning tradition at our school because of Alexus and some of the girls that came before her,” Battle said. “I thought we could’ve got it for some of them who missed out last year, too, but it just didn’t happen this time.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org