By David Rogers. February 16, 2018. MORGANTON, NC — When you get to the pinnacle of competitive basketball, size matters. In their Northwestern Conference championship title matchup, Morganton-Freedom continued to capitalize on Watauga women’s basketball’s most obvious vulnerability — lack of size — as the Patriots rallied from a shaky opening to defeat the Pioneers, 60-55.
Led by sophomore guard Rebekah Farthing and senior guard Madie Darner, both later named to the all-tournament team, Watauga jumped out to a 7-1 lead and finished the first quarter with an “in control,” 18-11 advantage.
There was a stretch during this 2017-18 campaign where the Pioneers would be slow coming out of the gate, fall behind early, find their footing, rally, then cruise to even dominant wins against NWC opponents. More recently they have done a better job of leading from start-to-finish — except when playing Morganton-Freedom. Against the Patriots, even in the Pioneers’ 52-44 victory in Morganton on January 12th, the games have been close. The 61-59 overtime loss to Freedom on February 6th in Lentz Eggers Gym was a heartbreaker. And now comes the rubber match of the season, the long expected battle between the two titans of Northwestern Conference basketball in the championship game.
Arguably, Freedom had an “unfair” advantage. Although listed as the “visiting” team because of Watauga’s higher seeding and even sitting on the visitors’ courtside chairs, Freedom was the host venue for the conference championship tournament. The stands were filled with enthusiastic, even boisterous navy blue-and-red clad supporters, raising the rafters when one of their own put the ball in the hoop or collected a rebound.
But it is not as if the Pioneers had no support at all. To the contrary, there was the usual contingent of parents, grandparents and friends of the Watauga players, but scores of other High Country basketball fans, too, including more WHS students than seen at any other “away” basketball game this year.
In short, it was an electric atmosphere that embraced this game and witnessed the Pioneers early lead, but the tone of the contest changed in the second period as Freedom’s five began to assert themselves underneath in the second period, getting better positioning for rebounds getting shots both inside and outside.
Freedom outpointed Watauga 15-8 in the second period, with offensive contributions from five players led by forward Adair Garrison’s five points in the period. With their productivity on both ends of the court, Freedom had momentum on its side when heading to the locker room at intermission with a 26-26 deadlock.
Friday’s second half was a gutsy, back-and-forth performance by both teams. Physically, it was hard for the Pioneers not to foul in trying to disrupt Freedom offensive possessions. It may well be an exaggeration, but at times it was like a backyard dad playfully dangling a big orange ball just out of reach of his pint-sized, four-year-old daughter, laughing as he watches her jump up and down trying to get it.
But the Patriots had more in store for Watauga than just their inside prowess. Tournament MVP and junior guard Madison Bailey stunned the Pioneer faithful with 12 of her game-high 17 points in the third period alone, including five 3-point daggers to put Watauga in a 43-39 hole by quarter’s end. Inside, Patriot forward CC Davenport added six while turning away Pioneer drives to the basket, somehow without fouling.
Only Watauga senior point guard Maddisen Robinson had much to say, offensively, in the third period. She scored eight of her nine points on the evening in the third quarter to keep the Pioneers within range.
Watauga went on a 7-3 run to tie the game at 46-46 with 5:24 remaining in the game, but the Pioneers ran out of gas. With one of their only legitimate inside threats, senior power forward Parris Bolick having to retire in the second period because of a stomach ailment, the Watauga line-up suddenly got even smaller and head coach Laura Barry’s choices in matching the Patriots’ size and experience became fewer. Robinson, Darner, Farthing, Brooke Byrd, Cailey Haas, five of Watauga’s frontline six, simply had to play the majority, if not all of the remaining minutes.
Meanwhile, the Patriots’ Blaikley Crooks scored nine of her 15 points in the fourth quarter to pace Freedom’s game-clinching performance.
With the loss, Watauga will now await the state tournament seedings and brackets for their next opponent. The Pioneers finished the regular season with a 21-4 overall record, 21-2 in their last 23 games, with their only recent losses coming at the hands of Freedom in close battles. That should be enough to secure them either a first round by or a home game in the first round against a lower seeded opponent. Freedom will undoubtedly get the higher seed coming out of the Northwestern Conference with its tournament title.
- 17 – Madison Bailey
- 15 – Adair Garrison
- 15 – Blaikley Crooks
- 9 – CC Davenport
- 3 – Maddie McGinnis
- 1 – Aysha Short
- 15 – Rebekah Farthing
- 13 – Madie Darner
- 10 – Brooke Byrd
- 9 – Maddisen Robinson
- 4 – Molly Ward
- 2 – Cailey Haas
- 2 – Parris Bolick