East Wake had the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A girls basketball playoffs in its sights before the postseason began.
Before Thursday night, that was a stage none of many talented Warrior basketball squads had reached for more than a decade.
That changed when the No. 10-seeded Warriors jumped on the No. 7 J.H. Rose Rampants early on and rolled to a 68-47 second-round victory.
“The girls are playing hard and it means a lot to make the third round in I don’t know how long,” said East Wake coach Toni Dupree. “It’s the first time (making the third round) since I’ve been here. I think it’s a stepping stone for what we’ve been trying to do here.”
East Wake (24-4) advanced for a second meeting of the season Saturday with nonconference rival Millbrook (26-2), the No. 2 seed and 69-53 second-round winner over No. 15 New Hanover. East Wake and Millbrook faced off Dec. 1, when the Warriors led by 10 points at halftime but the Wildcats eked out a 55-53 win.
“We lost by two points, but we were up (10) at halftime,” said East Wake senior forward and Cincinnati signee Angel Rizor. “We just have to go in there and be ready to play basketball because we know they’re going to be ready.”
Rizor led the Warriors with 20 points Thursday. Junior Tamira Knuckles finished with 19, including four 3s, and Mikieja Covington and Maiya McCoy had eight points each. East Wake stayed clean in the foul-game, with all but one player finishing with fewer than three offenses.
Rose (19-6) was led by junior Castar Braswell’s 18 points (also with four 3-pointers), senior captain Jillian Ebron’s 14 and junior Kentasia Street’s 11.
The Rampants came out on a 3-point sting and made a pair in the opening minutes, but Rizor went to work in the paint as the Warriors asserted themselves on defense.
“We knew we had to come out strong,” Rizor said. “We didn’t want to get behind and then it be too late. It’s worse to come from behind than to be ahead early.”
A steal and shoe-in by Knuckles made it 15-10, and she made it 18-12 with a deep shot at 2:45 in the opening frame. Four straight points from Rizor extended the lead to 10 with less than a minute in the quarter and Jasmine Reid polished up with a deep ball for the 25-12 advantage.
East Wake led 47-24 at halftime, after a bucket by Rizor and selfless dish from Knuckles to Covington in the lane.
Rose in the third quarter chipped the deficit to 16 points, but no lower, as the Warriors struggled to find the net while also losing several rebounds the Rampants cashed in on.
“We came out flat in the third quarter and we can’t do that on Saturday,” Dupree said. “You can’t get lackadaisical. This is the state playoffs.”
After the coach held a pep talk, Knuckles made a 3-pointer and sophomore guard Dajha Williams drove the lane to reclaim a 22-point lead, 58-36, with two minutes left in the third.
Up 66-45 in the fourth, East Wake began to chew up some clock.
“We’re focused now and we know where everybody is going to be,” Rizor said, referring to her teammates. “As long as we play our game, we’ll be in a pretty good position. Playing strong makes us look forward to the next game, knowing we have that intensity.”