‘So much to be proud of’ — Salisbury girls knock off Farmville Central for state championship

Published 12:04 am Sunday, March 13, 2022

By David Shaw

CHAPEL HILL — The season’s last six-column headline belongs to the Salisbury girls basketball team.

The post-season math is done — and a 2A state championship in Saturday’s finale solved the equation for the Hornets, who ran the post-season table and claimed the program’s first title since 2011.

“I couldn’t ask for a better team,” coach Lakai Brice crowed at the hallowed Dean Smith Center, moments after Salisbury swept past East Region champion Farmville Central 54-44. “There’s so much to be proud of.”

It was nothing if not a magic carpet ride for SHS. The Hornets closed the season with a 28-1 report card, victories in their last 27 games and a well-deserved championship plaque that will forever mark their place in history. And while some of their success came easy — they smothered eight regular-season opponents by at least 60 points and two by more than 70 — the state playoffs presented more stringent challenges.

“We needed a piece from each and every single person,” said junior guard Kyla Bryant.

They got it yesterday against FC (27-5), a high-octane, run-and-gun squad that had reeled off 17 consecutive wins. Salisbury placed three scorers in double figures, played military-grade, slow-down defense and kept its composure in the frantic fourth quarter. The Jaguars were limited to 16 field goals and shot a dismal 30.2 percent from the floor. They never led after Bryant, operating with the cool assuredness of Paul Newman sliding the 6-ball into a far pocket, smoothly drained a short set shot inside the lane, providing a 16-15 advantage early in the second period. Salisbury led by 12 on three occasions, the last when forward Jamecia Huntley hit an open layup with 2:44 to play.

“We played their game,” said dejected FC coach Hollis Harper. “We did not push the ball like we’re supposed to. Playing someone else’s game is difficult for us. We’re a fast-paced team and the pace of the game, we did not do right.”

Credit a Salisbury defense that wasn’t taking no for an answer. The Hornets forced 19 turnovers — including seven by East Carolina signee Amiya Joyner, all 6-foot-4 of her. A back-to-the-basket, low post banger, Joyner played the entire game and muscled her way for 16 points and 23 rebounds.

“If we had let No. 10 (Joyner) get half of her points and rebounds in the first four minutes, it might be a different story,” said Huntley. “But we established ourselves against her pretty quickly. That was important.”

So was the taut defensive play of 5-9 junior Mary Morgan, who drew the defensive assignment against Joyner. She contributed six rebounds and four assists, but made her best play in the final minute, drawing a charge against Kalyn Baker with SHS clinging to a 50-44 lead.

“I was guarding (Joyner), but she never came into the post,” Morgan said. “I was just standing there and (Baker) came right at me. She hit me right in the chest and I fell back. That’s a charge.”

Salisbury led 39-31 early in the fourth quarter when senior guard Rachel McCullough corralled a defensive rebound and hoisted a 40-foot, cross-court pass to Bryant streaking down the left side. Bryant dribbled once and kissed a soft layup off the glass and through the goal, sending the SHS faithful into a frenzy.

Down the stretch, the Hornets remained composed. Joyner’s 3-ball from the right side narrowed the lead to six with 1:02 remaining, but four straight McCullough free throws — two following a flagrant foul call against the frustrated Joyner — helped Salisbury present a convincing closing argument.

“Defense is what we’ve preached all season,” Brice said after Farmville Central was held to a season-low 44 points. “Obviously, we had offensive pieces and could score. But we had to get them all focused and committed to playing defense.”

Salisbury was paced by finals MVP Bryant’s game-high 17 points. Huntley was good for 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals, earning the West champion’s outstanding player award. And McCullough, the bubbly SHS senior headed to UNC to study business and possibly journalism in the fall, shot 3-for-5 from three-point range and totaled 13 points.

“I knew we were going to win this,” she smiled outside the festive Salisbury locker room. “The way we’ve been practicing, the way the playoffs had gone, I don’t know how to explain the feeling. But when we got on this court today, we all knew. We felt we could get inside Joyner’s head by playing sound, disciplined defense and a deliberate offense. We took away their strengths. That’s the game we played and they couldn’t stick with us.”

With many in the crowd of 2,733 shouting “Gotta bring it home now,” the Hornets did just that. Afterward Bryant joined seniors Jaleiah Gibson, Kiki Walker and McCullough in accepting the championship plaque.

“We weren’t even supposed to win the last game,” Bryant said, almost giggling. “Look at us now.”

We are. It’s the look of a state champion.

NOTES: Salisbury shot only 19-for-62 from the field (30.6 percent), but led for 29 of the game’s 32 minutes. … SHS assistant coach Andrew Mitchell earned his fourth state championship ring. … Each team finished with 44 rebounds after Salisbury held a 26-16 edge in the first half. Gibson had five offensive rebounds. … The SHS bench contributed nine points — all before halftime — and 16 rebounds. … Joyner shot 7-for-16 from the field and was named the East champion’s outstanding player. The Jaguars had seven first-period turnovers and were a telling 2-for-14 from beyond the arc. Salisbury hit four of 10 from downtown.

Farmville Central    13    4     14    13 — 44

Salisbury                   14    12    13    15 — 54

FARMVILLE CENTRAL (44) — Joyner 16, McDaniel 14, Willioughby 6, Wooten 4, Baker 4, Denham, Carmon, May

SALISBURY (54) — Bryant 17, Huntley 13, McCullough 13, Noble 5, Dalton 4, Morgan 2, Gibson, Walker, Nwafor