When the Southeast Raleigh girls’ basketball team was invited to the HighschoolOT.com Holiday Invitational, coach Nicole Meyers expected to compete for the tournament championship.
It was the Bulldogs’ first appearance since 2010, and the back-to-back state runners-up wanted to put their speed, talent and athleticism on display.
The 57-49 loss to Durham Hillside wasn’t the result Meyers anticipated, as the Bulldogs led for the majority of the contest before their first loss of the year. But, for her, the girls grew.
They played some of the best competition in the area, teams favored to eventually fight for a state title. They learned lessons about the dangers of mental lapses but also discovered how far their depth and experience may take them once they reach the playoffs.
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“Our expectation was to get here anyway,” Meyers said after the final loss, days before Southeast Raleigh resumed Greater Neuse River Conference play. The team hosts East Wake on Friday.
“That’s not to be high and mighty, but we have high expectations,” she said. “We approach every game like we can win it. We want to win every game that we play. Getting here is not necessarily a surprise. It was a fight and nothing was given to them.”
In the opening round the day after Christmas, Southeast knocked off the defending tournament champion in Durham Riverside with a 55-45 score.
It next disposed of Winston-Salem Prep, 40-34, in its closest margin of victory on the year.
En route to a HighschoolOT.com championship appearance, the Bulldogs were on an 11-game winning streak to open their season. In those games, they outscored their opponents 639-337.
Southeast led by as many as 12 in the second quarter before Hillside’s Elisia Grissett scored several times off turnovers. Still, the Bulldogs held a tight lead going into halftime.
In the fourth, Hillside’s Jakelbi Lewis hit back-to-back 3-pointers to change the course of the game, the second giving her Hornets the first lead of the half.
“I think momentum shifted because we weren’t necessarily expecting that from her,” Meyers said. “I think she’s a capable player, but we know her strength is getting to the basket and getting open looks for her teammates.”
Southeast’s Jada McMillian won Most Outstanding Player honors after the tournament.
The Bulldogs played Hillside twice last year, including when they eliminated it in the third round of playoffs.
Though Meyers noted plenty of positives from her team’s holiday tournament run, it was tough to ignore the miscues on offense.
She said her assistant counted 16 missed layups against Hillside.
“That’s 32 points out there,” Meyers said. “We missed countless point-blank looks at the basket and then you look at the numbers of free throws we took and they had close to 30.”
Hillside attempted 29 free throws, putting in 23. Southeast shot 6-of-10 from the line.
Grissett made 16 of 19 free throws on the night to tie a girls’ tournament record for most made shots from the stripe. The Hillside star made 10 of 12 in the final 2 minutes of the game.
Southeast’s upcoming tests include two games against East Wake and a second cycle at Knightdale in February.
I’m proud of the resiliency because we had to fight back in every game that we played. I’m definitely proud of the fact that we saw some growth, especially for the younger people. I think that will definitely pay off in our playoff run in March.
Southeast Raleigh girls’ basketball coach Nicole Meyers
Hillside coach Ovester Grays after the game Wednesday said his crew and Southeast Raleigh are two teams that can play for the state championship in a few months and that the Bulldogs are extremely accustomed to winning.
“We’re up by 10 (late) and Southeast Raleigh is still trying to win,” he said. “They’re used to winning, they expect to win and they know they can win.”
Southeast Raleigh senior Kia Abrams said the team learned a lot from being in one of the biggest invitationals in the Triangle.
“I feel like we did good,” she said. “I feel like the fight we had was good, and it’s definitely going to help us further in our season.”
A season dedicated
After Southeast Raleigh players learned a former classmate was shot and killed two days before Christmas, they took action on the court.
They decided from then to play for Kari Watson, a 2015 graduate who was home on holiday break from Winston-Salem State University.
Abrams was one of the closest to Watson, who Meyers said was a student athletic trainer.
“She was more than a friend. She was more like a sister to me,” Abrams said. “She was always there for me. Just the fact that I didn’t get a chance to get this for her, the rest of my season is going to be Kari, Kari, Kari, Kari.”
Meyers said the gesture speaks volumes to her team’s character and that while the Bulldogs want to have a winning season for themselves, they also want to win for Watson.
“(She) was important to everybody,” Meyers said. “This season, we’re dedicating to her and her honor.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan