East Wake’s goals are pretty much cut and dried as the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A girls basketball playoffs begin this week.
The latest edition of a team that for years has been capable of making deep playoff runs doesn’t want to sell itself short as a state title contender. But the Warriors have good reason for setting their initial sights on the third round.
Making it that far would make them the only East Wake group to do so in the past decade.
“A couple times, we’ve gotten there (to the second round), but we just can’t seem to get over that hump,” said seventh-year head coach Toni Dupree. “Hopefully this year we get over that hump.”
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Counting this season, East Wake has earned the right to compete in the playoffs for 10 straight years. The program has reached no further than the second round since 2007, but did come mighty close in its two tries at reaching the third round.
In 2011, Dupree’s second year in her post, East Wake upset Laney (53-52) in overtime in the first round before falling by a mere four points (52-48) to top-seeded South View.
Last year, several of the current Warriors enjoyed shooting past Holly Springs (70-39) in the opening round. They bowed out in a 60-57 loss at Southeast Raleigh, marking the second time that season they lost by three points in their three encounters with the Bulldogs.
Although their 2015 campaign ended with a loss to their top Greater Neuse River 4A Conference rival, the Warriors celebrated one significant success: they snapped a three-year streak (from 2012-14) of being upset in the first round of the playoffs.
Dupree still uses those upsets – to Cary, Harnett Central and Laney – as lessons that nothing is guaranteed once the regular season ends.
“I never underestimate anybody – they’re in the state playoffs for a reason,” Dupree said. “The girls just have to feel like they can win. It’s going to take everyone to bring their A-game every night to get further in the states. It’s got to be a team effort, but it pretty much boils down to everyone playing with heart.”
It helps, Dupree said, that some of her current players were there for the ups and downs of the past few seasons.
Senior captain and Cincinnati signee Angel Rizor (18.6 points, 9 rebounds per game) experienced two of the upset playoff losses. Junior guard Tamira Knuckles (15.2 points per game) was there for one of them.
“We’ve talked about it,” Rizor said. “You always take into consideration every game because it really is every game could be your last game. If you come out slow, then you never know. You might lose. We have to start off fast every game and can’t take any team lightly.”
‘A positive and a negative’
Dupree said her team has worked harder and her players pushed each other more in the second half of the regular season, in which the Warriors’ only league loss was to Southeast Raleigh.
The Bulldogs and Warriors finished first and second, like they have perennially in recent years, despite East Wake defeating Southeast in January for the first time in five seasons. One week after that big win, however, the Warriors were ousted by two points by league No. 3 Knightdale.
“That showed us we have a potential to beat anybody,” Dupree said of the long-awaited triumph over the Bulldogs, the defending state 4A runners-up. “But losing to Knightdale was a wake-up call – like we need to play every game. That showed them they can’t slack off against anybody.”
This year’s East Wake team has carried a different mindset into its games than past teams have, Dupree said. She’s is still on the fence as to whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.
“They aren’t afraid of anybody – they don’t get that mental block of ‘we can’t beat them.’ I’ve never heard that come out of their mouth,” she said. “They’re a little fearless. They don’t think about it, they just come out and play. But you can’t just go out there and think you can beat everybody. You have to be fearless, but that can be a positive and a negative.”
Rizor said this season’s crew is simply having fun playing together.
“That makes it less stressful and you just enjoy the moment,” Rizor said. “Don’t think about what’s ahead or what’s behind you. You just enjoy the game itself.”