Very few teams in high school basketball ever got to know each other as well as conference rivals Rocky Mount and Nash Central did this season.
When the Gryphons – regular-season champions of the Big East 3A – hosted the Big East 3A tournament champions on Saturday night in the third round of the state 3A girls’ basketball tournament, there just weren’t many secrets left.
And in their fifth and most important meeting of the season, Rocky Mount prevailed pretty convincingly.
Seniors Keyanna Spivey and Michelle Gainey combined for 40 points, leading the Gryphons to a 56-39 win that was essentially decided after three quarters.
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The result advanced No. 5 seed Rocky Mount (22-3) to Tuesday’s fourth round game at No. 1 seed Northern Guilford (28-1), which walloped visiting No. 7 seed Topsail 61-25 earlier Saturday.
Rocky Mount had advanced following Thursday’s 50-35 win over No. 14 seed Northwood, after annihilating visiting No. 29 seed Westover 70-9 in Tuesday’s first-round action.
“We tried to catch them at halfcourt, because they shoot the ‘3’ so well,” said long-time Rocky Mount coach Pam Gainey, whose daughter is a 5-9 guard. “They kicked us last week because we didn’t. We just needed to focus on the things we do well. When we followed our game plan on defense, we were able to extend our lead. And Keyanna was really unselfish. She made sure to get her teammates involved on offense.”
No. 5 seed Rocky Mount got through Big East Conference play with a 10-0 record, but the Bulldogs dealt the Gryphons two of their three losses (in the county tournament and conference tournament).
No. 11 seed Nash Central, playing without junior star Robbi Allen who was lost for the campaign with an ACL injury in the season opener, had gotten off to a 2-4 start before shocking Rocky Mount 40-36 in the semifinals en route to the championship of the Nash County Christmas Tournament.
The Bulldogs then beat Rocky Mount again 42-39 in the championship game of the Big East tournament.
Nash Central, which upset No. 4 seed Union Pines 54-42 on the road on Thursday night, finished 18-9 in its final season before dropping to 2A in the realignment for next season.
“Rebounding is always important for us and we got outrebounded tonight,” said Nash Central’s Terri Cash, who has guided the Bulldogs’ program since its inception in 2002. “That was our Achilles’ heel. When we were at our best tonight we were attacking the basket. But they were able to limit our 3-point shooting, and that was good for them and not for us.”
Spivey, whose cousin Myia played for Nash Central, led all scorers with 25 points while Michelle Gainey chipped in 15 for the winners.
Senior Michaela Nelms, who will play at The College of Central Florida in the fall, had 16 points for Nash Central while sophomore Kayalin Mitchell added 14.
“I just like to go inside, and if I can get an and-one it’s great,” the Gryphons’ Spivey said. “Nash Central is a big rival and we knew them really well, but the important thing today was to realize they were in the way of us getting to the state championship. We can still get better. We haven’t reached our peak yet, but I think we can get there.”
Rocky Mount took the lead for good on an Ashley Hatfield layup that made it 6-4 with 4:43 left in the first quarter.
The Gryphons led 15-7 after the period, stretching the lead to 29-12 on a Gainey jumper with 4:20 left in the half. But Central rallied, cutting the lead to 33-27 at halftime.
“It was a tough loss,” said Nelms, a track standout who was state indoor 3A champion in the 300. “Keyanna Spivey is a really good player. It’s great that we were able to win two big games against them, but that doesn’t matter as much right now.”
Rocky Mount took control in the third, outscoring the Bulldogs 19-8. Each team scored only four points in the fourth quarter.
“The last time we played at their pace,” said Michelle Gainey, who said she struggled for her first two seasons playing for her mother before finally grasping the coach’s messages. “This week we concentrated on keeping them at our pace and keeping them off the 3-point line. If we put our minds to it, I think we can beat anybody we play.”