Rocky Mount did almost everything right in the fourth round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A girls’ basketball tournament on Tuesday night.
The Gryphons just didn’t have a quality 6-foot-5 center, while host Northern Guilford did.
And junior Elissa Cunane, who has already committed to N.C. State, led everybody with 24 points, 20 rebounds and six blocked shots as the Nighthawks escaped with a 54-44 victory.
The win propelled the top-seeded Nighthawks (29-1) to the Eastern championship game on Saturday in Fayetteville against No. 2 seed Jacksonville.
Senior Shelby Meeks and Mya Pittman led Rocky Mount’s balanced scoring effort with 12 points apiece, followed by senior Keyanna Spivey with 11 points and eight rebounds.
“You just can’t coach 6-5,” veteran Gryphon coach Pam Gainey said. “I thought our girls were a little nervous early on and couldn’t get into a smooth flow. But we showed some fight. I thought we fought really hard. But (Cunane) is tall and long and we couldn’t do much about it. … We’re really going to miss our seniors. Their leadership and commitment level has been evident every day.”
The Nighthawks, the defending Eastern 3A champions who are having their eighth straight 20-win season, had more than doubled the score on their opponent in their first three playoff rounds. But on Tuesday the 10-point victory margin was their largest lead of the night.
“At halftime we just said ‘Keep shooting – the shots are going to fall,’” said Kim Furlough, the only head girls’ basketball coach in the history of Northern Guilford, which opened in 2008. “I thought this game was good for us. We’ve had some close games. We just told the girls to keep doing what we do.”
No. 3 seed Rocky Mount (22-4) had not played a playoff game closer than 15 points, advancing to Tuesday’s contest with a 56-39 win over county rival Nash Central on Saturday.
That had been the Gryphons’ unlikely fifth meeting of the season with the Bulldogs, who had defeated them en route to the Nash County Christmas and Big East tournament titles.
Northern led 39-38 following a 3-pointer from Pittman with 6:25 to go. But Cunane scored four straight points and and nine of the Nighthawks’ next 11 to make it 50-40 with 1:16 left.
One unusual aspect of the game was that coach Gainey was coaching the final high school game of her daughter – senior guard Michelle, who finished with six points and seven rebounds – while Northern coach Kim Furlough was coaching her own senior daughter Sami who finished with four points.
“We did a good job keeping up our intensity,” Michelle Gainey said. “We had just never faced a player who was that tall, and she beat us up in the air.”
Spivey said she’ll miss playing on a special team this season.
“We came out and matched the first punch tonight,” Spivey said. “But the one thing our coach can’t teach us is height. We played good ‘D’ and just came up short. This team was about more than basketball. We have a lot of love for each other on and off the court.”
The sophomore Pittman said she’s expecting a big future for the team despite losing some talented seniors.
“We worked really hard and did what we needed to do and never gave up,” Pittman said. “We’ve just got to keep working hard and play the game the way we’ve always been taught.”