North Raleigh Christian Academy head coach Avie Lester can remember the exact moment he realized he had a team capable of winning a state championship.
It was back in the fall and there was a conflict over who would practice in the gym: his girls or the Knights’ jayvee boys team. Since they were both there they decided to play each other, and a funny thing happened - his girls held their own.
“We were giving them the business,” Lester said with a smile on his face. “That’s when I was like, OK, we might be pretty good.”
From that point, Lester told his team he would be hard on them because they showed potential. The Knights reached that potential Saturday night, defeating Ravenscroft, 40-35, in the NCISAA 4A title game.
Emma Finster led NRCA (23-4) with 17 points and knocked down four free throws in the final seconds to ice the victory.
Finster, a sophomore, was in a similar situation earlier in the year and missed an opportunity to win a game from the line. With the state title riding on her shots, Finster made sure she came through for her team on the big stage.
“I thought that was a redemption moment for me and I was able to knock them down,” Finster said. “I was just (thinking) this is what it’s about and I have to make these.”
NRCA scored just nine points in the fourth quarter, none bigger than the free throws from Finster after the Ravens (19-8) pulled to within one after a pair of free throws from Lauren Harrison. The Knights only hit two field goals in the final eight minutes, their last shot from the floor coming on a layup from freshman Imani Lester with 3:40 remaining in the game.
That would be the last field goal from both teams. Macy Frederiksen hit one from the line to make it 36-33 and Harrison followed up with two of her own to make it a one-point game. NRCA turned the ball over on consecutive possessions, but Lester came up with her fourth block of the second half to stop Ravenscroft, who were swept by the Knights in the regular season, but gave the No. 1 seed their best shot in front of their home crowd.
“Every girl stepped up and played their role,” Ravens’ coach Mike Ramel said. “They should be proud of finishing second. I know everyone wants to win it all, but to be second is still special and to play as a team and play together is something to be proud of.”
Aliya Richdmond led Ravenscroft with 11 points. The game was tied at 28 in the third, but the Ravens never led in the fourth once NRCA took the lead for good on a three from Finster to make it 31-28.
Christa Dutton (11) hit a deep three from the Knights to start the fourth, and Lester, who was limited to five points, would hit the final field goal of the game moments later for NRCA, who held Ravenscroft to 1-for-8 shooting from the floor in the fourth quarter.
The Knights swept the Ravens during the regular season, but Ravenscroft had some confidence in the third match up, especially after finding some success early. The Ravens led 14-10 after one quarter of play, and 20-18 at the half.
“We’ve had a great two weeks,” Ramel said. “We were playing our best basketball at the right time. We really felt that we could compete and win and it showed. We were with them the whole time.”
Confidence from NRCA, however, came back in the fall when they went toe-to-toe with their male counterparts. That carried over to the John Wall Holiday Tournament, where they lost a close game to Green Hope (71-69) and defeated E.E. Smith out of Fayetteville, their only loss of the season.
“That’s when we hit us,” Finster said, “that we could do something.”
The Knights only have two seniors on the roster. Their starting five includes two freshmen, a sophomore, a junior and an eighth grader. Being fairly young, Lester was proud of how his team handled the big stage for the first time.
“They kind of help each other through,” Lester said. “They boost each other up, so it’s good when you have a whole team that will do that for each other.”