David Shaw: Hornets persevere beyond expectation

Published 12:01 am Sunday, March 6, 2022

GREENSBORO — Save the last dance for this never-say-never Salisbury girls basketball team.

If nothing else, the 27-1 Hornets deserve a berth next weekend’s 2A state championship game because they’ve persevered beyond expectation, turned ordinary into extraordinary and delivered under stressful conditions.

Oh yeah, and they sidestepped a late-winter storm on Saturday.

“This team,” UNC-bound sniper Rachel McCullough was saying at Grimsley High School, where Salisbury punched its ticket to state final by edging defending state champion Shelby by the slightest of margins. “This team works nine out of 12 months a year for this feeling, for this moment. A lot of people around the state doubted us at different times this season. Now we can tell them — no, now we can show them — that we are a great team.”

Salisbury’s 45-44 triumph in the West Regional final was equal parts draining and enlightening, but it didn’t exude a copious amount of greatness —  only four quarters and two overtime periods worth of durability and fortitude. There was plenty of grit. There was far more spit than shine. And there was junior Kyla Bryant, clasping the game’s final rebound as time expired — forging a feeling so few have known. The Hornets, in simplest terms, seemed to blossom rather than wilt in the playoff heat.

“This team is just resilient,” sagacious coach Lakai Brice said almost matter-of-factly. “They get after it. They don’t stop playing and they don’t drop their heads.”

Of course, they could have. The Hornets could have sulked through the final 5:42 of regulation after Shelby’s Maraja Pass drove the left baseline and hit a layup for a 36-31 lead. “Nope,” Bryant said post-game, smiling warmly outside the spacious gymnasium.

They could have brooded after committing their 10th team foul and watching Shelby standout Kate Hollifield — half of the Lions’ devastating Kate & Ally sister act — convert three of four free throws to provide a 43-40 advantage midway through the second OT session.

But they didn’t.

Instead, the Hornets all nodded affirmatively as Brice offered instruction during a last-minute timeout — then emerged with hearts and heads stuffed with their trademark Hornet Chutzpah.

“Oh, we had everything we wanted, just the way we wanted it,” said third-year Shelby coach Scooter Lawrence. “But when the buzzer went off, they were the better team. We had opportunities to win the game. We just didn’t cash out.”

That payoff went to Salisbury. McCullough tied the score when she navigated the left baseline, hit a layup through congestion, was fouled by junior Brooke Hartgrove and sank the ensuing free throw with 1:11 to play.

“There’s a lot of maturity on this team,” said McCullough, a 10-point scorer. “That’s all that was. Last year we lost to this team (in the second round) and it was heartbreaking. This time, we just had to keep our composure.”

Salisbury wasn’t able to put this one in the safe until the final horn. Down by a point in the rapidly evaporating waning seconds, the go-ahead basket was scored by junior defensive specialist Jamecia Huntley, who may or may not have fouled out of the game a minute earlier.

“First they said I had fouled out,” she offered in a telling, battlefield re-enactment. “And it was my fifth foul. But my fourth one wasn’t really mine. It was Mary’s (Morgan) or Jaleiah’s (Gibson) and they got it right in the scorebook.”

It also set the stage for Huntley’s crowning moment. Only 8.5 seconds remained when she received a perfectly threaded bounce pass from Bryant and scored on a power move from the left block.

“They all ran to Kyla when she had the ball,” Brice offered. “Kyla made the pass to Jamecia down low, which is a good place for her. I didn’t make that call. That was two good basketball players making the right play.”

All that remained was a last-second desperation heave from the right corner by Hartgrove. When it back-rimmed and floated to Bryant, the Hornets were headed for Chapel Hill, site of Saturday’s coronation.

“Oh, God I just went and crashed the boards,” Bryant beamed with teenage exuberance. “That might be the highest I’ve ever jumped.”

What Salisbury has earned is the right to fight another day. Nothing more, nothing less, but certainly something special.

“We can relax for one day,” Brice made it known. “This game right here is going to be out of our minds by Monday. It’s a well-deserved day off.”

It’s one Bryant, Salisbury’s backcourt maestro and leading scorer, will try to enjoy. “Yeah, but the truth is we played so hard we might as well go ahead and win next week too,” she quipped.

Wishful thinking indeed, but a script not yet written. Only Saturday knows what awaits.