Millbrook thrives on balance.
It’s what the Wildcats girls’ basketball team has used to beat every in-state opponent it’s faced this season.
The Wildcats used their scoring diversity to go undefeated in the Cap-8 Conference en route to regular-season and league tournament championships.
The success Millbrook has bred continued when it wiped Durham Hillside out of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs, claiming an East regional championship this past Saturday.
Before it lies one final test: a state championship game.
No. 2 Millbrook (29-2) will play the West’s top-seeded Northwest Guilford (30-0) in the state final Saturday in Chapel Hill. The Wildcats won back-to-back state championships in 2012 and 2013, and they are 2-1 in the finals.
Northwest will be playing in its first title game.
“They’re undefeated, so it will be another great challenge for us,” Millbrook coach Chris East said of the Vikings. “I don’t mind being the underdogs. That’s great.”
Millbrook is a team accustomed to long playoff runs, and last season’s early exit has fueled many of its seniors. The Wildcats fell to Broughton in the second round last year.
“My senior year, I want to go out with a state championship. That was my motivation from the very beginning,” Millbrook forward Jaleesa Dillard said after the 58-51 victory over Hillside.
Dillard scored a team-high 10 points to match junior guard Dazia Powell. The Wildcats finished with seven scorers and 17 points off the bench.
Juniors Andreal Bass and Kai Crutchfield put in nine apiece, seniors Dominique Cross and L’Donnisty Granison scored eight each and junior Zairya West netted four.
With two starters – Powell and West – facing early foul trouble, every contribution was valuable. They both fouled out in the fourth quarter.
Millbrook outrebounded Hillside 34-15, but no Wildcats player reached double figures on the glass. Krutchfield led the team with six boards.
Dillard didn’t score in the second half, but she helpedhold off Hillside’s 6-foot-2 junior Elisia Grissett. Grissett fouled out in the fourth quarter and was one of four players – two from each team – to collect five fouls.
Powell fouled out with about four minutes to play. Millbrook was leading, 49-44, and she made a couple of plays on both ends of the court before jumping up and down in disbelief after being whistled under the basket for No. 5.
West, playing with four fouls, aggressively drove to the hoop for her first points of the game with 3 miutes, 22 seconds left. She fouled out with less than a minute to go, a comfortable Millbrook lead intact.
“If you believe in your teammates and trust they’re going to be where they’re supposed to be, I mean, it could be a little easier on you,” said East, though he noted Powell’s absence took from the Wildcats’ inside advantage. They scored 34 points in the paint, and East said Powell doesn’t flee from pressure.
Millbrook never trailed againstHillside. Its defense limited Grissett (4-of-6, 12 points), and allowed just four Hillside field goals in the second half (4-of-19).
Millbrook’s only two losses this season came during the CresCom Bank Holiday Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C.,to Georgia’s St. Francis and in overtime to South Carolina’s Lower Richland.
From those games, we learned to get better as a team and be a little smarter. So, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
Millbrook coach Chris East
Northwest defeated Southwest Guilford, 58-41, to remain undefeated and advance to the big stage.
The Vikings have a balanced scoring attack of their own, as four players – 5-7 senior Haley Barber (15), 5-8 senior Toni Tucker (12), 6-0 sophomore Bria Gibbs (11) and 5-8 senior Savannah Neas (10) – average double figures in scoring. Gibbs shoots 80 percent from the floor.
“We have a challenge in front of us, but it’s kids like Jaleesa that buy into what we say and what we do that make us as good as we are,” East said. “We don’t have one person to stop. We have five people to stop, and I think that gives us a huge advantage.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan