WAXHAW – The Cuthbertson girls basketball team is in the midst of a remarkable season. Even so, the prospect of the Cavs going to the Western Regional championship and knocking off powerful Morganton had to look like a tough hill to climb.
Morganton was 30-1 entering the game and riding an eight-game win streak. Long-time coach Amber Reddick has always run a successful program, but over the past four seasons, she led the Patriots to a 114-8 record that included a state title and an appearance in now their third regional final during that stretch.
But Cuthbertson coach Joel Allen knew his team could compete. He came up with a perfect game plan exposing Freedom’s weaknesses in a 41-37 win that advances the Cavs to the 3A championship on March 16 against Southeast Guilford.
First, Allen had to slow the high-scoring Patriot attack that came in averaging 58 points per game and had only been held under 50 points just five times in 31 games with a season-low of 43 points.
“I thought our preparation this week was awesome,” Allen said. “We basically tried to memorize their playbook. We knew they had about eight to 10 sets and we watched six hours of film this week. We thought we knew their plays inside and out and I thought we did a good job on (Patriot leading scorer Madison Bailey).
“I think we knew what was coming and it showed. We didn’t shut them down completely. They have some good players, but our preparation showed.”
Cuthbertson’s defense slowed the Patriot attack from the beginning, holding them to just nine first-quarter points and staking Cuthbertson to a 21-15 halftime lead.
Freedom shot just 6-of-27 in the first half and often looked out of sync and frustrated.
“The key to our defense was communication,” said senior guard Kayla Young. “We knew their sets to an extent, so it was important that we were talking, communicating and we knew where everybody was and we knew our assignments… We had to talk and execute what we planned out for the game and it worked out really well.”
The Cavs opened up their biggest lead of the game to start the third quarter as a Maddie Dillinger bucket gave Cuthbertson a 34-26 advantage.
The Panthers responded with a 9-2 run that cut the lead to one, but Lauryn Hardiman and Kaylin McKinney both made free throws to expand the Cav lead back to 38-35.
That’s when Dillinger stepped to the line and calmly sank a pair of free throws to put the game out of reach.
Dillinger, a 6-foot sophomore forward who leads the Cavs with 13.5 points per game, scored 13 of her game-high 19 points down the stretch.
Hardiman scored 10 points, Young added seven and freshman Ruby Williams played well on both ends of the court and added four points.
“We’re versatile,” Allen said. “It’s hard to game plan to stop one person because we have four or five options. I think our offense is hard to prepare for. The Princeton stuff is hard to prepare for in one or even two days. That’s one reason I’m a fan of running it because come playoff time, it’s hard to scout.”
The Cavs will have a week to scout Northeast Guilford, another team having one of their best-ever seasons.
The Falcons will enter 28-3 and with a talented big three that includes Kennedi Simmons (18.6 points and seven rebounds per game), Kristen Roberts (15.0 points) and freshman Raven Preston (14.1 points and seven rebounds).
But the Cavs will be ready no matter who they face.
“I think for whatever reason, the media and Maxpreps don’t give our conference much credit,’ Allen said. “Part of me wanted to come up here and win to prove those stupid computers wrong. No doubt there are some good teams up here top to bottom, but I feel like we get looked at like the red-headed stepchild sometimes down around Charlotte, but obviously we can play some good basketball, too.”
And when the Cavs step on the court in Raleigh, Young said her team will be ready the school’s first basketball state title and prove they belong among the elite programs.
“This is something we’ve had our mindset on all season,” she said. “We knew we had big goals, we had the talent and we had the coaching to get us where we needed to be. Now that it’s finally here, all chips are on the table, so win or go home. It’s the same way it’s been during this playoff run, but I think we’re ready to get out there, prepare for next week and leave everything on the court.”