Though her team never trailed in the entire contest, Grace Hunter didn’t know whether Athens Drive could pull off the upset until she was standing at the free throw line with less than five seconds to go.
Then it hit her.
She sank both free throws to seal a 70-64 upset of Riverside in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A girls basketball playoffs Tuesday night.
That gave her 44 points to go with her 16 rebounds.
She couldn’t hold back the tears as the buzzer sounded.
“I didn’t start believing until there was two seconds left. I know how Riverside is; they play until the end,” Hunter said.
No. 6 seed Athens Drive (21-5) is back in the girls regionals for the first time since 2010, and it did so by beating a Riverside team (22-3) that had won the regular-season matchup, 83-55.
The Pirates had not lost at home this year, but the Jaguars changed that by throwing a box-and-one on point guard Zaria Rodgers (four points).
“I felt like we needed to make them shoot from the outside, 10-15 footers and no second chances or at least limit their second-chance opportunities. That was the game plan,” Athens Drive coach Dayna Jordan said.
Hunter is on a playoff rampage.
She had 29 points in a 72-27 first-round win against Green Hope and 43 in a 77-71 Monday victory against New Hanover, giving her a postseason average of 38.7 per game.
Riverside tried to face-guard her for much of the game, but Hunter got loose anyway.
She attacked the rim in transition, picked her spots in the halfcourt, knocked down 3s and got buckets from near-impossible angles. Late in the second quarter, she swished a 16-foot fadeaway off her wrong foot.
“She’s a superstar,” Jordan said. “She’s insane. She’s unstoppable.”
“For us to go far in the playoffs, I have to step up and do everything I can,” Hunter said.
Riverside came within two twice in the final minute. A putback from Virginia recruit Mone’ Jones (30 points, 10 rebounds) with 35 seconds left cut the lead to 64-62, but Athens’ Brinae Thornton hit two free throws.
Freshman Aushantee Nelson’s putback with 14 seconds to go did the same, but Robin Gallagher answered with two free throws with 11.6 to go. Riverside’s final shot attempt was boarded by Hunter, who clinched it at the line.
It was a bitter end of the season for Riverside, which was hoping to return to regionals for the second straight season.
In addition to Jones, Yamika Clifton (17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists), Atlanta Woodall and Shayla Moody provided a strong senior class for the Pirates.
“It’s just a bittersweet loss to leave out on this note. But I do look forward to seeing (the seniors) in the future. I think they set the precedent for the younger girls that are coming up. There is still greatness here at Riverside,” Pirates coach Alicia Jones said.