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Ford pep talk spurns RMHS boys to a fifth state title

March 13, 2012
By Charles Alston of Rocky Mount High School

CHAPEL HILL – Rocky Mount’s boys’ basketball team got a pep talk from Gryphon and North Carolina basketball legend Phil Ford just before hit the Dean E. Smith Center floor for its matchup with Hickory in the NCHSAA 3-A State Championship title game Saturday evening.

Seeing No. 12's jersey when hanging from the building's rafters instilled even more pride in Rocky Mount's players. This was just a good a home game for the Gryphons.

Though they had a slow start, the Gryphons used their pressure defense to feed their offense as they posted a 78-64 victory over the Red Tornadoes to claim their second state championship in three years.

Rocky Mount (27-3) claimed its fifth state title in boys’ basketball and the school’s 12th state championship overall. And a sophomore led the way.

Center Dante Battle, who shed almost 25 pounds off his 6-foot-5 frame over the last year, controlled the paint for the Gryphons with a 20-point, 16-rebound, four-block effort. His performance earned him the Charlie Adams Game MVP Award.

In fact, the paint was Rocky Mount’s domain. The Gryphons outscored Hickory 50-16 in the lane.

But Hickory, which has reached three state championship finals without a win, owned the 3-point line early. The Red Tornadoes (28-4) canned 7-of-12 treys in the first half, despite going a frigid 11-for-30 from the field overall. Hickory had an 18-10 lead after the opening eight minutes and a 32-29 advantage at intermission.

‘We knew they couldn’t keep hitting threes like they did in the first half,” said Rocky Mount head coach Mike Gainey, who joined Reggie Henderson (boys basketball in 1978, ’82) and Chris Carpenter (football in 1962 and 1963) as the only Rocky Mount coaches to lead a team to two state titles. “All we had to do is concentrate on our inside game and I thought we’d end up on top. Dante’s play has been leading up this. He is quiet and unassuming most of the time. We wanted to light a fire under him and we did just that.”

Rocky Mount also turned up the defensive pressure on the Red Tornadoes in the second half, The Gryphons’ half-court zone trap sent Hickory into a tizzy. RMHS opened the third quarter with an 18-5 run that ended with 12 straight points that put it up 47-37.

Hickory then made a run of its own. It cut the lead to 47-45 on Jalen Byrd’s layup. Byrd (15 points, four assists) would go on to be named the Red Tornadoes’ Most Outstanding Player.

But the Gryphons poured on the pressure again to get a 51-45 lead entering the fourth.

Constant misses by Hickory in the fourth gave way to transition baskets for the Gryphons. Rocky Mount led by as many 17 points with less than two minutes remaining.

Senior Terrill Hilliard, RMHS’ Most Outstanding Player award winner, closed his career with a double-double – a team-high 21 points and 11 rebounds. Forward K.J. Peoples and point guard Tabias Hilliard also reached double figures with 12 and 10 points, respectively.

“What a legacy these guys have built at Rocky Mount,” said Gainey, who saw seniors Tevin Taylor and Terrill Hilliard win their second state title. “It’s been such an awesome experience. It’s going to be great thing to take that state championship banner to the new high school.”

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