It’s a good thing for the Athens Drive High girls basketball team that Grace Hunter is as resilient as she is relentless on the basketball court.
Hunter was downright brilliant Monday night, scoring a game-high 43 points as the Jaguars held off a gritty New Hanover squad for a 77-71 win in a N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A second-round playoff game.
The visiting Wildcats never led, but pulled within two points at 63-61 with just under four minutes remaining on Kayleigh Merrell’s lone basket of the game on a successful drive to the basket.
Hunter, a senior guard that averages about 30 points per game, put the Jaguars on her back, scoring seven points down the stretch including a three-point play that gave Athens Drive a 72-63 lead with two minutes left.
New Hanover, which capped its season at 21-5, couldn’t draw closer than five points from there as Athens Drive earned the right to move on to Tuesday’s third-round contest at Riverside.
Hunter said she wasn’t about to let New Hanover pull notch a come-from-behind road win.
“This was really physical basketball tonight, but I was determined to deal with it,” said Hunter, who crashed to the floor several times after hard drives to the basket and committed four fouls herself. “I’m determined not to lose again this season.”
Hunter had some help from teammate Brinae Thornton, as her fellow senior guard netted 21 points. Despite taking leads of 20-11 in the first quarter and a 41-32 bulge at the break, Thornton said it took all the dynamic duo had to hold off the Wildcats.
“It took dedication and heart to pull this game out,” said Thornton. “We’re going to have to get our teammates more involved in order to go further in the playoffs.”
Her coach, Dayna Jordan, agreed with that assessment going into Tuesday’s game at Riverside, whom the Jaguars lost to earlier this season.
“New Hanover played very physically tonight and that gave us some problems,” Jordan said. “We’re going to have to play tougher and get contributions from more players going forward.”
New Hanover coach Vertha Dixon-Wright said her team didn’t have quite enough firepower to offset Hunter.
“She’s a great player and we knew that coming in, and our inexperience down the stretch hurt us too,” said Dixon-Wright, whose team had four freshman and five sophomores among its 12 players.
Ayonna Cotten led New Hanover with 14 points.