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Southern Nash stopped by Gryphons in Big East title game

February 19, 2012
Rocky Mount High School

ROCKY MOUNT — Southern Nash senior reserve Tony Wills was sprawling to the floor when he flipped the basketball goalward — and banked in the desperation shot.

The noisy, near-capacity crowd in the Northern Nash High gym reacted wildly to the play of the game in Friday night’s 3-A Big East Conference varsity boys basketball tournament championship game.

But more importantly, the improbable bucket left the underdog Firebirds trailing only 42-38 midway through the third quarter against top-seeded Rocky Mount, the regular-season champion.

But either Rocky Mount senior Michael Hines was not impressed or he drew inspiration from the play that juiced Southern Nash’s comeback hopes and left onlookers aghast.

Hines responded with the game’s next 10 points and Rocky Mount pulled away to a 76-61 triumph to add the tournament title to regular-season supremacy and hike its record to 21-3.

No. 3-seeded Southern Nash, appearing in a tournament final for the first time in five years, dipped to 9-12 and enters next week’s N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs as the Big East’s No. 3 representative.

During Hines’ personal spree, Southern Nash head coach Robbie Kennedy cited another development that, from his team’s standpoint, was more critical to the outcome. On consecutive possessions, Firebirds’ junior Chi-Ali Bunn and senior Brandon Stafford were each forced to the bench with their fourth personal foul. Moments later, senior Jonte Hunter, who spearheaded Southern Nash’s surge at the outset of the second half, also had to sit because of foul woes.

“The fourth foul (for each) totally changed the ball game,” Kennedy insisted. “We had made them change defenses three times. But we had to put a small guy out there and were basically playing with four guards and (6-foot-4 seniors) Josh (Sessoms).”

Rocky Mount’s Terrill Hilliard, a 6-6 senior, was proclaimed the tournament’s mosts valuabe player, but Gryphons head coach Mike Gainey was not downplaying Hines’ scoring spree.

“That was suprising — what we needed,” said the smiling Gainey. “It’s amazing who’s going to step up when somebody else is not playing well. Michael came in and did an awesome job. We were laughing on the bench that Michael was going to keep on until he made the all-tournament team.”

Hines steered Rocky Mount to a 54-41 lead after three quarters. The Gryphons then opened the final quarter with a 9-0 flurry and spectators began filing out. Rocky Mount’s lead crested at 24 points.

“I felt like I needed to take over (in the second half),” commented Southern Nash’s Hunter, “but I got into foul trouble and couldn’t do anything. We got into foul trouble and didn’t have all our players on the floor. But I felt like we had to keep fighting and never give up.”

The rivals were meeting for the fourth time this season, and Hunter assured: “I was ready for it — this is what I live for. I played as hard as I can; I left it all on the floor.”

Kennedy hailed his Firebirds for “playing their tails off,” adding: “I’m proud of them. If we had stayed out of foul trouble...”

Southern Nash was also plagued by numerous missed shots from close range and a 13-of-26 showing at the foul line. The Firebirds committed 20 turnovers as compared to 26 for Rocky Mount.

Hunter’s 12 points paced the Firebirds, while Sessoms scored 11.

Rocky Mount’s Hilliard fired in 21 points and grabbed six rebounds. Michael Hines wound up with 14 points, while senior Lavon Brutus canned 12 and senior Tevin Taylor 11. The talented and taller Gryphons hurt Southern Nash inside with the presence of Hilliard, 6-4 Kenneth Peoples and 6-5 Dante Battle.

Feisty, scrappy Southern Nash owned a 9-7 edge when Rocky Mount seized the lead for keeps with a 10-0 run. The Gryphons doubled the score at 26-13. Southern Nash closed the deficit to eight points on two occasions before Rocky Mount settled for a 38-28 halftime advantage.

However, the Hunter-led surge enabled the Firebirds to chop the deficit to 40-36.

“They called time-out, came out and outplayed us,” Kennedy said of the Gryphons. “In the first half, we played well, but they outscored us 15-0 on 3-pointers. They’re a good team; they’re so deep. But I thought we had them on the ropes.”

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