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Prep Basketball: Heilig was Salisbury's unsung hero

CHAPEL HILL — It was hard to believe to many, including Post sportswriters and Salisbury coach Chris McNeil, that Jessica Heilig wasn’t named to the all-regional team last week.
When the names were called for MVP efforts after Saturday’s 76-44 shellacking of East Bladen in the 2A state championship, she wasn’t mentioned in the postgame awards ceremony.
But believe this. Everyone knew what Heilig meant to the Hornets’ run to a third straight state title.
While Courtney Melvin of East Bladen was supposed to be the dominant force inside, it was Heilig who simply took it to her. She powered over Melvin. She went by Melvin.
She outplayed Melvin to the tune of 16 points and nine rebounds.
Add that to the 12 points she scored in the Western Regional final against Newton-Conover and she was an MVP in McNeil’s mind.
“She burst out at the right time,” McNeil said of the 6-foot-1 Gardner-Webb signee. “She’s one of the main reasons we’re here.”
McNeil said Heilig had no concern over whether she made an all-tournament team.
“A lot of times, she doesn’t get the accolades she deserves,” he said. “She kept telling me, ‘Coach, I’m not going to let you down. I’m not worried about awards. I just want another championship.’ ”
Mission accomplished.
Heilig said she figured East Bladen would be Saturday’s foe.
“We knew we’d probably have to play them, so we prepared for it,” Heilig said.
Players talked after Saturday’s game about Kiontae Rankin, a former defensive lineman for Joe Pinyan’s football Hornets, playing the part of Melvin in practice.
Melvin is a large, 6-2 East Carolina signee who was averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds. She was completely stifled by Heilig and Olivia Rankin, shooting only seven times and scoring just seven points.
Meanwhile, Heilig was too quick, too good of a leaper and a better player on this day. She said the Hornets did not take the Eagles lightly.
“We realize every team can score,” Heilig said. “We just play defense.”
McNeil added, “Our bigs came up very big.”
Especially his unsung hero — Heilig.

One of those “bigs” was not expected to even play much, but in a brilliant coaching move, McNeil used 6-3 Eboni Feamster in short spurts. She came through with two blocked shots, two rebounds and a bucket in just 10 minutes.
“It was hard for them to make decisions,” McNeil said of East Bladen having to look up at so many tall Hornets.

This was Salisbury’s most impressive performance of the season. And McNeil remembers when the season started in the Hornet gym.
Salisbury hosted a “Clash of the Champions” and drew gasps when it actually lost its opener to 4A Butler. But on the last day of the season, the Hornets were the only ones standing. After that Butler loss, they reeled off 27 straight wins.
“They don’t like the taste losing leaves in your mouth,” McNeil said.

The Hornets become the first 2A girls team to win three state titles in a row.
The 32-point victory was the largest in the history of girls championship games.

The girls got to see what it’s like for ACC teams playing in the Smith Center. Several times, the teams were just standing on the court waiting to go but had to wait for TV timeouts. Time-Warner was covering the game live.

Now what?
McNeil is losing several seniors but still thinks the future is bright. Winning championships breeds interest in the Salisbury youth.
“There are a lot of younger ladies that I guarantee will get in the gym and start working that much harder,” McNeil said.
Eight of 11 Hornets are seniors. But Salisbury returns Brielle Blaire, who is only a freshman — and the state championship MVP after a 20-point performance — and junior Doreen Richardson, who didn’t play much the last half of the season due to an injury. But she will be one of the quickest players around next season.

And finally …
Newton-Conover coach Jonathan Tharpe proved to be a prophet after Salisbury beat his team in the regional final:
“Those girls are monsters. They’d win 1A, 2A, 3A or 4A. They are big. They are powerful.”
He’ll get no argument from East Bladen.

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