High school basketball: Salisbury girls still standing

Published 4:01 am Wednesday, March 1, 2023


Staff report

SHELBY — Only four teams are left standing now in 2A girls basketball — and one of them is the Salisbury Hornets.

Third-seeded Salisbury won on the road on Tuesday, prevailing in second-seeded Shelby’s gym, 46-40.

It was the third epic struggle in three years between the programs.

Shelby’s win in Salisbury’s gym — the Hornets missed on a game-tying shot at the buzzer – was the springboard to a state title for the Golden Lions in 2021.

Salisbury beat Shelby in 2022 in two overtimes in Greensboro. That was in a neutral site regional final.  That victory was the biggest playoff test for the Hornets, who went on to win the state title.

Now the Hornets are back in the Final Four. Salisbury will play fifth-seeded East Burke, which beat No. 1 seed Randleman on Tuesday. The Salisbury-East Burke game will be played at a neutral site this Saturday. Game time and venue are expected to be announced early Wednesday.

In 2A East, North Pitt, seeded second, and Seaforth, seeded fifth, are the last two teams.

Salisbury’s four-year starters Kyla Bryant and Mary Morgan also made it to the Final Four in 2020 when they were freshmen. They lost in the regional final to Newton-Conover, but they learned from it and they have an incredible amount of experience in big games at this point. Salisbury is 96-8 since those two arrived on campus. That includes 15-2 in state playoff games.

This is a much different Salisbury team than the 2022 champs. It’s missing Rachel McCullough, Jamecia Huntley, Jaleiah Gibson and Kiki Walker. Former reserves MaKayla Noble, Haley Dalton and Icesis Nwafor moved into this season’s starting lineup, with Shamya Arnold moving up to an important sixth-person role. The coaching staff, Bryant, Morgan and a lot of familiar faces in new roles have helped the Hornets stay among the state’s elite programs.

Salisbury is 25-3 despite playing one of the toughest December non-conference schedules ever undertaken by a Rowan County team.

Nwafor has produced some hot-shooting games and picked a great time to have one on Tuesday, on a night when a foul-plagued Bryant was being held to about half of her average.

Nwafor made four 3-pointers and scored 20 in a game that was a defensive struggle, especially in the first half.

Salisbury held the Golden Lions to one field goal in the first quarter, but the Hornets couldn’t score either. Bryant made a 3-pointer and Nwafor had a bucket. It was 5-all after a quarter.

Bryant had two buckets in the second quarter and Morgan made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Salisbury a 16-12 halftime lead.

Salisbury went ahead 25-20 in the third quarter with Bryant getting two buckets. Then Nwafor made back-to-back 3-pointers to expand the Hornets’ lead to 11 points at 31-20.

Ally Hollifield, the standout for Shelby with 24 points per game, got her fourth foul early in the third quarter.

Most of Shelby’s offense came on 3-pointers by seniors Hollifield and Brook Hartgrove. A 3-pointer by Hartgrove cut Salisbury’s lead to 31-23 at the end of the third quarter.

Shelby pressed early in the fourth quarter and went on a run, nine straight points for a 32-31 lead. Hollifield made the go-ahead bucket.

Noble made a 3 to put Salisbury back ahead. Hollifield made a long one to put Shelby back on top, 35-34.

Nwafor hit the clutch 3-pointer that put the Hornets ahead to stay at 37-35.

Bryant made a free throw for a 40-37 lead before Nwafor, who was having an incredible night, scored again to put the Hornets back in control.

Salisbury      5    11    15   15   — 46

Shelby           5    7    11    17    — 40

Salisbury scoring — Nwafor 20, Bryant 12, Noble 9, Morgan 5.