For some unexplained reason, the Northern Carolina Conference girls basketball tournament trophy wasn’t on hand, so a dose of quick thinking was in order after Roanoke Rapids wrapped up the NCC title Friday with a victory over Warren County.
A trophy from the past was temporarily brought out of retirement from a display case at host school Franklinton and was available to the Yellow Jackets during a post-game presentation and ensuing photo session.
Nobody seemed to mind, considering the celebratory moment was 18 years in the making at Roanoke Rapids, which last tasted conference glory in back-to-back seasons in 1998 and 1999.
That drought ended with a thud this winter as Roanoke Rapids dominated the NCC’s regular season and tournament – a sweep that was capped Friday with a tough 51-47 decision versus No. 2 seed Warren County at the FHS Gymnasium.
Warren County’s boys, seeded fourth, closed out the night by defeating second-seeded Franklinton 55-52 in a thriller that wasn’t decided until the closing seconds.
While Warren County took an unlikely track to NCC boys tourney supremacy, Roanoke Rapids entered the event as a clear-cut girls favorite – and lived up to that lofty status.
“When I took over the program three years ago, (Roanoke Rapids) had won only seven games in two years,” said Jackets’ head coach Jim Whitmire. “They were working on their fourth coach in four years. ... We went 8-16 the first year and improved to 16-8 last year and made the second round of the playoffs. The rest is history. This is just a natural progression for us. After last season, we felt like the next step was to win the conference.”
Roanoke Rapids (19-6) had swept the Eagles (21-5) in the regular season and led the rest of the way after the early portion of the second quarter in Friday’s championship game.
But Warren County stayed close enough to make a late surge, and the contest wasn’t decided until Roanoke Rapids’ Abbi Carpenter swished a free throw with two seconds remaining to give the Jackets an insurmountable four-point cushion.
Roanoke Rapids’ dynamic guard trio of Anna Vann (19), Alizae Neville (10) and Michelle Stewart (9) combined for 38 points, while Warren County’s Samaria Lynch was strong in the paint with 25 points.
Warren County’s large cheering section stuck around for the boys game and were treated to a victory over homestanding Franklinton to wrap up the Eagles’ unlikely tournament run that included road wins over the No. 1 (South Granville) and No. 2 (Franklinton) seeds.
“We felt like we were better than a fourth seed,’’ said Warren County senior Malik Williams. “We just tightened things up a bit, and I think we proved ourselves.”
The Eagles (19-8) never trailed in the second half, but saw a seven-point lead almost disappear in the final two minutes as Franklinton (19-6) made a furious final comeback.
Two free throws from Williams gave Warren County a four-point margin with 24 ticks to play, but the Red Rams still chance a chance to tie in the final seconds – but a 25-footer from Jerrail Brodie bounced off the rim just as time expired.
When the game was over, Williams grabbed the game ball and wasn’t about to let go – and continued to hang on to the ball tightly through a series of photo-ops.
“This means so much to us,” Williams said. “This is my last year of playing, so it’s great to go out with a conference championship. I went up to the free-throw line knowing I needed to knock those shots down.”
It was a tough loss to take for Franklinton, which has dropped each of the last two NCC title games in final-minute fashion.
Still, the Red Rams are expected to gain a favorable seed for the upcoming N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A playoffs – and will be determined to improve upon last season’s unexpected first-round exit.
“We just have to keep believing in what we do,” said Franklinton head coach Terrence Horne. “There were some missed free throws (Friday) that could have made it a different game. We just have to keep confident and keep working on executing. In the 2A Playoffs, everybody is going to be good. You have to be ready to play. It’s either one-and-done or you keep going.”
Brodie and Smith Gupton shared Franklinton scoring honors with 11 points each, while Trevon Jones and Cornell Hendricks paced Warren County with 12 points apiece.