As a devoted history instuctor – and reigning Nash-Rocky Mount Schools Teacher of the Year – Nash Central’s Renny Taylor fully understands the importance of landmark achievements, along with the dates, times and long-term ramifications that accompany those significant moments.
So it came as no surprise to Taylor’s boys basketball players at Nash Central when he reminded them at halftime of Thursday’s Big East 3A Conference showdown at Rocky Mount that they had never defeated the Gryphons at the new RMHS Gymnasium, which opened in 2012.
Of course, Taylor also was aware that the Bulldogs had never topped Rocky Mount twice in the same campaign during his eight-year tenure in charge of the school’s boys hoops program.
Central had a chance to chart a historic new course in its rivalry with the Gryphons, and the Bulldogs got the job done with a fourth-quarter flurry that wrapped up a 60-55 victory in the Big East opener for both clubs.
Earlier in the season, Nash Central had stopped Rocky Mount in the first round of the Nash County Christmas Tournament en route to a second-place finish.
“This was a personal milestone for me,” Taylor said. “I was looking for any kine of incentive for our team, so I told them about some of the (recent history of the rivalry). It was really nice for our group to come in here and get a win.”
The Bulldogs had the same opportunity in the girls’ contest, as Central has also gotten past Rocky Mount at the Christmas Tournament, but the Gryphons returned the favor in the rematch with a 61-52 decision as RM senior veteran Keyanna Spivey sparkled on a night when she was honored for scoring her 1,000th career point – an event that occurred in early December.
“We ran our stuff better tonight and were able to get (Nash Central) into foul trouble,” said Rocky Mount girls coach Pam Gainey. “We did more full-court things and protected the basketball more.”
Taylor wanted to make sure that his Bulldogs (9-3, 1-0) got off to a strong start to their Big East schedule, but it wasn’t going to be easy, as Rocky Mount (3-5, 0-1) has been Nash County’s hoops standard-bearer over the past two decades, winning eight conference crowns in the 2000s to go with state championships in 2010 and 2012.
“Coming over here, I asked my players what our record was,” Taylor said. “The first one said that we were 8-3 coming in. I told him that was not the correct answer. The second one said that we were 0-0, and I said that was exactly right. We had six teams in the league starting play tonight at 0-0, and we had a chance to be one of just three teams that would be 1-0 after the games. And I am certainly glad to be 1-0 in the conference.”
The score of the back-and-forth game was tied at 42-42 going into the final period, but Central went ahead for good at 49-48 following Ta’rod Brown’s driving basket with 4:20 remaining. Brown’s heroics sparked the Bulldogs on a 9-2 spurt that was capped by Elijah Cole’s clutch trifecta with 1:32 left that increased Central’s advantage to 56-50.
When Cole’s shot sank through the net, Taylor showed a rare dose of on-court emotion by sharing a spirited fist bump with Bulldogs’ senior point guard and team leader Montre’ Cash, who paced his club with 19 points.
“This was a big, big win for us,’’ said Cash, who is the son of Nash Central girls basketball coach Terri Cash. “We were disappointed that we went 1-2 last week at the Cleveland (Classic), but this game was going to be a new start for us. It was also big how we did it. We got into a flow (in the fourth quarter), and I can’t say enough about how our sophomores (Brown and Chris High) contributed when we needed it.”
Brown, who is continuing to develop as an up-front presence for a roster loaded with backcourt talent, chipped in with 10 points, and Cole delivered 11 – none of which were more important than his late trey.
For the second consecutive year, the Gryphons find themselves playing catch-up with their Big East brethren due to the deep playoff run by the school’s football squad, which reached the state finals in December for the second consecutive campaign.
Rocky Mount didn’t even have a basketball game until the Dec. 13 tournament loss against Nash Central.
The Gryphons, coached by Mike Gainey, undertook a similar scenario in 2015-16, but rallied after a slow start to share the Big East crown with Nash Central and Southern Nash.
“Last year, we didn’t have the answers yet at this time,” Gainey said. “I feel like we have an idea of what we need to do. We are young, and we are asking a lot of two sophomores up front (Shyheim Battle and Joseph Blue). I feel pretty good about our numbers 1-5 guys, but we need to develop some depth with our 6-7-8 guys. We are going to be OK.”
Blue, who provides a physical presence in the paint, came through with 16 tallies, marking the fifth time this season that he has reached double digits (including a 34-point performance earlier this week against Hertford County.
Coincidence or not, Rocky Mount’s girls attack the basket in the second half of home games on the side of the gymnasium that features a banner that commemorates the school’s tradition-rich program, which has accumulated an impressive 11 conference titles.
At crunch time in half-court sets, all the Rocky Mount (8-2, 1-0) players need to do is look toward the banner, which vividly showcases the inherent expectations that come with donning the navy and gold uniform under long-time coach Pam Gainey.
While Pam Gainey is certainly proud of her program’s accomplishments, there is still one order of unfinished business as part of a career that has now spanned 23 seasons.
“We want to put a banner on the other side of the gym,’’ Pam Gainey said while pointing toward the school’s collection of state championship banners.
The Gryphons have come close in the past, but have yet to break through. If that milestone occurs in 2016-17, Spivey will certainly play a huge role in the lofty achievement.
A left-handed paint player who can also step out and hit a jumper – and run the court with effectiveness – Spivey racked up 24 points as Rocky Mount began its Big East slate in style by pulling away in the second half from Nash Central (6-6, 0-1) to avenge an earlier loss to the Bulldogs.
“(Spivey) doesn’t really have to be an inside player, but that is where she is best for us,” Pam Gainey said. “She has old-school footwork and knows how to play with her back to the basket. And when you need it, she can go outside and score. She does so many things for us.”
Rocky Mount trailed 27-26 at halftime before Spivey was surrounded by her teammates at midcourt while receiving a ball to honor her entrance into the 1,000-point club.
The heroics continued into the second half as RM began to convert some long-range trifectas over Nash Central’s zone, including a pair of 3-balls from Mya Pittman as part of a 10-1 spurt the end the third period that put the Gryphons in charge for good at 51-40.
Central’s deficit was only 41-39 at the 2:47 mark of the third stanza when senior veteran Michaela Nelms picked up her fourth foul – and then her fifth just 14 seconds later on an offensive foul before Cash could get her out of the game.
“When Michaela fouled out, that was the difference,” Terri Cash said.
Despite missing the final 10 minutes of action, Nelms still poured in a team-high 20 points, including 15 in the first half. Nash Central’s Kayla Mitchell, a potential-rich sophomore, picked up the slack with 15 of her 18 markers in the second half.
Coming into the season, coach Cash thought her club had the talent to be a contender in the always-tough Big East, but the Bulldogs lost junior scoring leader Robbi Allen for the year to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the opener.
The injury was Allen’s second ACL of her high school career, and the fourth Nash Central has experienced as a team in the past three campaigns.
“Right now, we are just trying to help Robbi stay positive,” Terri Cash said. “She has put in so much time, effort and energy, so we need to rally behind her. Sometimes, it is not about wins and losses, but about life. When you have adversity, you can’t quit.”
The schools will meet again on Jan. 27 at Nash Central.