WENDELL — East Wake coach Toni Vick suspected the Warriors’ fourth meeting of the season with Harnett Central would prove more difficult than the first three.
The fourth time turned out to be the charm for the No. 9-seed Trojans as they confirmed Vick’s suspicions and eliminated No. 8 East Wake from the 4A state playoffs with a 61-58 win in the first round on Monday.
“It’s hard to continuously beat a team, and beat a team and beat a team,” Vick said. “You have to expect that next game is going to be harder. In the conference tournament, we beat them by 18, but I told the girls playing a team for fourth time is going to be tough.”
After the Trojans (21-5) and Warriors (18-8) took turns winning the first three quarters, East Wake charged back in the fourth and had one final look at tying the game with 1.6 seconds to play. Tianna Knuckles, who led the Warriors with 21 points, took the inbound pass in traffic and attempted a 3-pointer while pressured from the right corner, but the ball came up well short of its mark.
“This was maybe the biggest one we’ve played this year,” Harnett Central coach Bennie Pollock said. “We’ve played East Wake eight times and twice in the (conference) tournament over the last four years. They’ve beat us 10 times, so we were 0-and-10 against them since we’ve been in the conference.”
The Trojans led by nine points after three quarters and by as much as 10 in the first frame. The Warriors cut the deficit to two, 26-24, at the end of a first half in which the teams combined for 18 turnovers.
Central’s leading scorer, DeAnneisha Jackson, drained half of her game-high 24 points before halftime.
“(Jackson) is the key,” Pollock said. “Last week (against East Wake), she picked up her third foul with six minutes to go in the second quarter. Tonight she played the whole game.”
The Trojans also got five of their six 3-pointers out of Maya Banks (17 points). Banks and Lakeisha Lewis hit two in a row from behind the arc to rebuild Central’s lead to 43-34 in the final minute of the third quarter and cancel out much of the Warriors’ efforts in the lane.
Knuckles and teammate Shakerrya Morrison (15 points) together produced 19 of East Wake’s 22 points in the fourth quarter.
Morrison hit a turnaround jumper with 28 seconds to play to pull the Warriors within 59-58. East Wake fouled Jalisia Campbell with 19 seconds remaining, and Campbell hit both free throws that followed – the last points scored in the game.
The Warriors had defeated the Trojans 52-41 in Angier on Dec. 20, 59-52 in Wendell on Feb. 1, and 55-37 in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference tournament semifinal game at Garner High School on Feb. 20.
Pollock said East Wake’s depth made it difficult for his players – seven who see significant playing time – to hold on as fatigue set in late in the teams’ first three games of the season. Pollock feared the same was taking place when East Wake began its fourth-quarter run Monday.
“We handled the pressure,” he said. “East Wake’s just a good team, man. You can’t take anything away from them. Our girls just toughed it out tonight and hit their free throws down the stretch.”
Trojans hit eight of 10 free throws in the fourth quarter, while East Wake hit seven of eight.
It marked the second straight year the Warriors were ousted by a higher seed in the first round of the state playoffs.
“We had a pretty decent season, but I am disappointed. I wish we would have made it to that next round,” Vick said. “In the last five minutes we decided we wanted to attack them, but we’d been telling them that the whole game.
“It was too late. I don’t think they understood the urgency that they needed to score.”
The Trojans held Kianna Wynn, who Vick considers the “other piece” of the East Wake equation, to seven points. Daisha Thorpe also contributed 10 points for the Warriors.