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2A State Championship: Shaw column: Bubbles was the spark

CHAPEL HILL ó There will come a day, years and years from now, when junior guard Bubbles Phifer will turn back into plain ol’ Shanequa ó and she’ll fondly recall just how extraordinary Saturday was.
She may have to explain to her friends, children and grandchildren who this Bubbles chick was ó and how she steered the Salisbury girls basketball team along a choppy course all the way to a state championship.
“I’m gonna say, ‘Ya know that girl that used to play for Salisbury? That was me,’ ” Phifer said with a friendly smile, moments after being named MVP at the hallowed Dean Smith Center. “I’ll remember our coach’s inspiration, remember our fans, and I’m never going to forget my teammates.”
What the Hornets accomplished this season ó winning 29 of 32 games, including yesterday’s 56-41 nod over Graham ó should be framed and displayed for the masses. They were the little engine that could ó and did.
“I am truly blessed,” said first-year coach Andrew Mitchell, a modest fellow for sure. “But I don’t think it was anything great that I did. Salisbury High has always been pretty good. When I got here, the foundation was already laid. I just had to get them to play my way.”

What Mitchell did was tinker with the engine that former coaches Jennifer Shoaf and Dee Miller helped construct. Then he filled it with hi-test and pointed it in the right direction. Salisbury rolled to victories in its first 11 games and finished 28-0 against teams not wearing East Davidson uniforms.
“Every coach believed in us,” said Phifer, who netted 15 points and became the second SHS player to surpass 1,000 career points this season. “But he somehow just knew that we were special. He believed in us. Of course, there were rules. Right away we learned that it was his way or no way. If we didn’t do what he wanted, we weren’t gonna play.”
Mitchell, the former Livingstone College women’s coach, inherited a multi-talented team of wounded, mixed personalities. A team that crash-landed last March with a unsightly loss in the regional final. A team that spent the off-season bickering more than Ricky & Lucy.
From that mess, Mitchell braided the Hornets into a single strand focused on one goal ó winning a state title.
“I saw it coming,” said senior guard Shi-Heria Shipp, a Division I prospect. “I knew all season if we gave it our all, worked as hard as we could, we could get the big win.”

They got it because they shot 42 percent from the field on Saturday ó a far cry from last week’s 16.7 percent effort. And because senior D’Rya Wylie reeled in 11 rebounds and scored 10 points. And because Shipp ó plagued by five turnovers and four personals in 24 minutes ó kept the offense under control, moving at a pace Mitchell could live with.
“We always want to get the best shot we can get,” he reported. “I wanted them to make five, six or seven passes before taking a shot. We call those rhythm shots, as opposed to, ‘I just want to shoot.’ It’s like waiting to take a high-percentage shot instead of just taking the first shot. Once they bought into that, everything went smoothly.”
It was Phifer, the Hornets’ reigning Queen Bee, who made it happen ó in a haphazard way. Her 3-pointer from the left side early in the third quarter trimmed Graham’s six-point lead to 28-27 and fueled a crucial 10-2 spurt.
“To be honest, that shot was off-balance and my foot was crooked,” she later explained. “But I was just feeling it so I took it. I think the rest of the girls looked at me and thought, ‘Hey, if she can do it, so can we.’ It made us more determined.”

Wylie thought Phifer made all the difference.
“Bubbles was sparky ó you can call her that,” she said. “Whenever we needed a lift, she gave it to us.”
Phifer added a short bank shot from the right side and a 15-footer from in front of the SHS bench before the pivotal third quarter was through, then drained a killer 3-ball that put the Hornets up by eight with 6:46 to play.
“It’s what I’ve been saying to everyone from the beginning to the end,” Phifer said. “I’m gonna get y’all a ring before it’s over. I’m gonna get you there.”
When it was over and all the medals and hardware had been distributed, Mitchell was quick to credit assistants Cooley Fields, Trella McLean and Christine Spring. And he made a point to thank Salisbury principal Windsor Eagle for his season-long advice.
“But what I’ll remember most,” he said, “are the faces of those young ladies when they realized we had won the state championship. To me, I love winning and I love this championship. But their faces at the end was the most rewarding thing. I’ll never forget this.”

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