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Salisbury girls ready for regional

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
The heaviest local snowfall of the century transformed the last two scheduled practices for Salisbury’s girls basketball team into optional, informal shootarounds on Monday and Tuesday.
“You’re not supposed to fully practice if there’s no school,” Salisbury coach Andrew Mitchell said with a sigh. “But I’m sure the Mitchell coaches are dealing with the same thing.”
Mitchell’s Hornets are playing Mitchell’s Mountaineers tonight at 8:30 p.m. at UNC Greensboro’s Fleming Gym in a Western Regional semifinal.
And, yes, Mitchell taking on Mitchell could get a bit confusing for radio commentators.
Mitchell has spent most of his coaching life in the college ranks so he’s spent the last three days gathering information and watching tape on Mitchell’s Mountaineers, a perennial power from the rural map-dot of Bakersville.
“I can tell you they’re good,” the coach said. “The point guard (Lakin Norris) really runs that team and they’ve got a lot of players that make open shots and make you pay for any mistakes you make.”
Mitchell said the Mountaineers reminds him a lot ó maybe a little too much ó of Salisbury’s biggest rival and nemesis East Davidson.
Like East Davidson, the Mountaineers are experienced, sound and patient. They drill open shots and don’t miss free throws.
Mitchell isn’t as tall as East Davidson, however, and it likes to extend its defense and pressure fullcourt.
Pressing Salisbury, though, is playing with fire. The Hornets have the quickest team in the regional, and the faster the pace, the more rebounds and loose balls there are to chase down, the more it should play to their advantage.
The weakness for Salisbury is that open shots don’t always fall and free throws can be an adventure. But if Salisbury shoots the ball efficientlyó as it did when it destroyed a good Ashe County team in a sectional road game ó the Hornets will be a handful.
Mitchell is in the Western Regional for the eighth time, an amazing feat for a rural community that sits 2,460 feet above sea level and is just a halfcourt shot away from the Tennessee border. The listed population for Bakersville, which is located a few miles north of Spruce Pine, is 356.
Bakersville is known for two things ó the Rhododendron Festival every summer and its purple-and-white girls basketball team every winter.
Mitchell lost a close game to East Davidson in a regional semifinal last season, a score that got Coach Mitchell’s attention.
Norris has had a career filled with double-doubles and occasional triple-doubles. She scores about 20 points a game.
Whitney Jones and Samantha Smith joined Norris on the Western Highlands Conference all-tournament team. Autumn Thompson pulls down eight rebounds per game.
While Salisbury (26-3) has lost only to top-ranked East Davidson, Mitchell (27-2) hasn’t lost to any 2A teams.
Both Mountaineer losses came in a Christmas tournament. They got clobbered by McDowell County, a strong 4A team that held Norris to 3-for-18 shooting. The next day, Mitchell lost to Charlotte Catholic, a strong 3A team.
Salisbury, back in the regional for the seventh straight year, has been a special team in its own right.
The chemistry has been fine and the overall talent level is as high as it’s ever been. Some performances have been awesome. Not many people saw the 72-37 wipeout of Ashe County, which had lost only one game, but it was mind-boggling.
Senior guard Shi-Heria Shipp and junior guard Bubbles Phifer, who is 13 points away from 1,000 for her career, are among the best players in school history.
The Holmes twins, Ayanna and Ashia, have provided limitless energy. De’Rya Wylie has banged, defended, rebounded and played big. Seniors Nene Phifer and Kia Rice have embraced their roles perfectly.
The tall girls ó Jasmine Clinding, Jessica Heilig and Isis Miller ó don’t score much, but they’ve provided an inside presence. Lacresha Young, who gets the fewest minutes, is always upbeat and cheers the loudest for her teammates.
It’s been a fun team to watch.
The Hornets have scored as many as 100 points in a game. They’ve allowed as few as eight. They’ve held 12 opponents under 30 points.
The staggering stat is that all 26 Salisbury victories have been by double digits, including a 53-32 road win against a strong Statesville team that made the 3A regional.
Salisbury averages 67.0 points a game, a point below last year’s school-record production. Defensively, the Hornets enter the regional allowing 31.9 points a game. The school record is the 33.8 points a game the Hornets gave up when they won the 2A state championship in 2004.
Shipp, Wylie and Rice played in the 2006 state championship game as freshmen ó an overtime loss to Farmville Central ó and would love to get another shot.
To get back to the title game, the Hornets have to handle Mitchell. Then they’ll have to beat East Davidson (30-0) or Smoky Mountain (24-3) Saturday afternoon.
“Everyone’s healthy ó Shipp’s ankle is better and Wylie’s shoulder is better,” Mitchell said. “Everyone’s excited, and that’s how it should be. We’re three wins away from a state title.”
Mitchell has coached in big events, most notably the annual CIAA tournament during his long tenure as coach of the Livingstone women.
But the playoff run may be the most fun he’s had since he was pumping in points for Catawba ó 753 to be exact ó back in the 1980s.
“The CIAA tournament is a very big deal,” he said. “But we have a chance now to win a state championship.
“That’s the highest level we can go. That’s like winning the national championship in college.”

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