ASHEBORO – Watching high school basketball players soar up and down the floor, firing up long 3-pointers, scoring a ton of points and, for the boys, recording the occasional dunk, is certainly exciting.
But there will be games when the shots aren’t falling, getting to the rim is nearly impossible and the highlight-reel plays normally seen just aren’t there.
Those nights are inevitable during the course of a long high school basketball season. But, all coaches will say, there should never be an off day when it comes to defense.
For the Southwestern Randolph High School girls and the Asheboro High School boys varsity basketball teams, it was defense which paved the way for each of those teams to be called Sportstone.net Christmas Invitational champions.
In the inaugural event held last week at Asheboro High School, the SWR girls captured the title by surrendering just 10 points in the second half of the championship game and earned some well-deserved fourth-quarter breathing room in a 45-30 win over West Brunswick.
The AHS boys, as flashy, fast and athletic as any team the Blue Comets have produced in quite a while, held the Randleman TIgers to just four points in the fourth quarter in running away for a 63-41 tournament championship win.
The title games were the culmination of a 24-game, three-day event that featured AHS, SWR, RHS, Trinity, Providence Grove, Eastern Guilford, West Brunswick and the NC Leadership Academy.
For the SWR girls, a 66-25 victory over Leadership Academy and a 42-31 semifinal win over PG preceded the title game. In all, the Cougars allowed just 86 points in three games, an average of less than 30 points a contest.
And it’s a good thing the defense was so stout because the Cougars had trouble offensively for most of the final two games.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well, but that’s part of the game of basketball,” veteran SWR coach Seth Baxter said after his team captured its fifth holiday tournament championship in the past seven seasons. “But you should never have an off night with defense and rebounding.
“I think the communication on defense between the guards and the post players was key. We kept switching defenses and we did a good job of switching on picks. We always talk about no contested shots and I think we did a good job of that. It was a total team effort on defense and we made enough shots to win.”
Led by tournament most valuable player Jordin George and guard Maddie Strider, the Cougars were able to break away from a 20-20 halftime tie to take a 31-25 lead heading into the final quarter. There, Strider was 6-for-6 from the free throw line and George added a couple of key buckets to help the Cougars stretch the lead.
“It’s all focus, you just have to focus,” Strider said of a perfect 11-for-11 from the charity stripe during the game. “As the game goes on, the more focused I get. I try and stay focused the whole game.”
It showed. She hit a key 3-pointer to give the Cougars a 23-22 lead early in the second half and SWR never trailed again.
While Strider finished with 14 points, George had nine of her 11 after halftime.
“It feels great,” George said after the Cougars improved to 11-1 with their 10th straight victory. “I’ve been working really hard and I’m proud of how hard our whole team worked during the tournament. At halftime, Baxter got us all locked into the game, really focused. We know if we play good defense that is going to lead to fastbreak layups and a better offense.”
The inside trio of Kenzie Martin, Gracie Hodgin and Macy Allred also played key roles in the win. The three combined for 13 points while leading the team with strong rebounding efforts.
SWR’s Caressa King was also named to the all-tournament team.
In the third-place game, Eastern Guilford recorded a 62-36 win over Providence Grove. The Patriots trailed just 24-21 at halftime, but the Wildcats outscored the Patriots 38-15 in the second half. Jada Nixon had 14 points for the Pats.
The Asheboro boys had little trouble in earning the Sportstone.net Christmas Invitational title as they recorded wins of 72-40 over Providence Grove, 69-30 over SWR and 63-41 over RHS.
Much like the SWR girls, the AHS defense was relentless, surrendering just 111 points in the three wins, an average of 37 per game.
It was also the second straight time AHS has defeated RHS this season after the Tigers handed the Blue Comets their only loss of the season back on Nov. 28.
AHS, now 11-1, has won eight in a row while the Tigers slip to 8-4.
“Number one, defensively, they played really hard,” AHS coach Brian Nance said after coaching in his 27th holiday tournament. “Coming into this thing, I told them with the style we play, it was going to be really hard for three straight days and we were going to need some minutes from our bench players. We got that. (Randleman) can score the basketball. They are big from outside and we ran the trap and it wore them down. By the end, they were tired. The shots they made in the first half were coming up short and that’s in the legs.
“We were getting tired toward the end. They gutted it out and played through fatigue and overcame that mentally and played through it.”
The Blue Comets led 16-8 after one quarter and were never really threatened. AHS had a comfortable working margin throughout, leading 35-21 at halftime and 46-37 heading into the final eight minutes. While Jerquarius Stanback sealed his most valuable player award with six of his 23 points in that period, the AHS defense held RHS scoreless for more than four minutes after the Tigers had clawed back to within 35-29.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of adjusting through things this tournament,” RHS coach Daniel Mitchell said. “Eastern Guilford gives you a lot of pressure and West Brunswick is more of a half-court team. And Asheboro has all those traps and zones they throw at you.
“We didn’t particularly play well tonight, but a lot of that was because of Asheboro. They have been running that defense for years and everyone knows their assignments.”
The Blue Comets held high-scoring Tyshaun Goldston to four first-half points and 10 for the game. Jireh Price led the Tigers with 14 points and Greg Price chipped in eight.
Stanback finished with 23 points and is now at 988 for his career, needing 12 against Eastern Randolph Wednesday to reach 1,000.
“It feels good to win,” said Stanback, who is headed to Appalachian State. “We played good defense and it transitioned into the offensive side.”
Cameron Walker added 19 points in being named to the all-tournament team.
In the third-place game, West Brunswick broke a tie with SWR by outsourcing the Cougars 22-10 in the final period for a 55-43 win.
“I thought the first day, we played really well,” said SWR coach Matt Kiser of the Cougars’ 66-50 win over Leadership Academy in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates. “Against Asheboro, I was a little disappointed in the intensity and focus that game. I felt we didn’t compete as hard as we could or should have.
“We bounced back today with the intensity, we just couldn’t get anything to go today. We defended and busted our tails to rebound, we just couldn’t get shots to fall.”
Brayden Chapman had 14 points and Nathan Ellis 10 in the third-place setback.