FAYETTEVILLE — When Chapel Hill lost by one point in last year’s 3A girls state basketball semifinals, coach Sherry Norris told her crying players to “remember the feeling.”
On Saturday, the tears flowing were of joy after the Tigers defeated Vanceboro West Craven 59-51 to advance to the state championship on Saturday on N.C. State’s campus.
Chapel Hill, which won its 17 straight game, will be seeking its first state title since 1981.
“We worked so hard and prepared for everything,” said Norris whose team won the regular season title and conference tournament for the third year in a row. “If we play our style of basketball, we’re hard to beat.”
The Tigers won despite shooting just 39 percent from the field. Chapel Hill took advantage of 18 Eagles turnovers to score 21 points.
“That was the difference in the ball game,” Eagles coach David Fernandez said. “Our team played hard and fought till the end, but we couldn’t overcome the turnovers.”
Trailing by one after the first quarter, the Tigers began to take advantage of their size.
Center Catherine Romaine took charge, scoring seven of her nine first-half points in the quarter to help the Tigers to a 24-20 halftime lead.
But Norris wasn’t satisfied with what she saw. “I told them (at halftime) they hadn’t been hitting the boards. That was the biggest thing,” she said.
Chapel Hill jumped out of the gate and outscored West Craven 16-3 to take a commanding 40-23 lead. On the defensive end, the Tigers were allowing just one-and-done on the boards.
But the Eagles wouldn’t break. Trailing 48-37 heading into the fourth quarter, the Coastal 3A Conference champions put on a full-court pressure defense that rattled the Tigers.
“When they started pressing us, we panicked and started committing turnovers,” said Romaine, who was named the 3A regional MVP.
Led by all-conference guard Jamie Cherry (22 points, seven rebounds), the Eagles went on a 9-2 run to trail by four with 2 minutes, 50 seconds left.
Romaine’s short jumper briefly stopped the bleeding before three straight points by West Craven cut the margin to 54-51 with 1 minute, 43 seconds left.
But the Eagles couldn’t stop Romaine (15 points) or Jessica Wall, who scored 12 of her 14 points in the second half, down the stretch. West Craven was shut out for the final 1 minute, 43 seconds.
Tamia Eatmon said last year’s disappointing finish is what drives the team.
“We know we have to keep working and keep pushing,” she said. “We’ve got to take care of business and play our game.”