In many ways, the final period of the NCHSAA 2A girls basketball championship became nothing more than a free throw shooting contest.
In the end, Southeast Guilford would make – and take – far more free throws down the stretch and walk away with the school’s first title in a 55-49 win over Cuthbertson at the Dean E. Smith Center on the University of North Carolina’s campus on March 16.
Despite outscoring the Cavs in the second half, Southeast Guilford would make just four combined field goals over the last two quarters. They connected on only two fourth-quarter shots, yet scored 15 points from the line in the final frame, morphing a 41-35 Cuthbertson lead into a six-point loss.
“It was a great basketball game to be a part of, and I think it was two great teams going back and forth,” said Cuthbertson coach Joel Allen. “I was ecstatic about the way our girls performed on this stage, the grit they showed to keep battling and battling.
“They are quick and, let’s be honest, we’re not sometimes.They were trying to dribble drive and get in the lanes…Once they got in the bonus and started making their free throws we couldn’t hold on enough to keep it even.”
Southeast Guilford made 15-of-21 fourth quarter free throws and got 18 of their 28 points from the stripe in the second half.
The carnage would foul out three Cuthbertson players and leave two more saddled with four fouls.
Ironically, the only Cuthbertson starter without four or more fouls was Cavs star Maddie Dillinger, who guarded Southeast star Kennedi Simmons for much of the game.
Dillinger, who had been so great all post season, led the Cavs with 17 points, but struggled some in this one. The standout sophomore also added seven rebounds, but committed four turnovers and was just 5-of-15 from the field and 7-of-14 from the free throw line.
Following the game, Dillinger was named Cuthbertson’s Most Outstanding Player.
Dillinger was great early, with four points right out of the gate as the Cavs opened up a 10-5 lead. But Southeast would close the quarter on a 13-2 run to take an 18-12 lead after one.
The teams traded baskets with Southeast taking 27-22 lead into halftime.
Cuthbertson came out firing again in the third, and after a 10-0 run led by six points again at 39-33.
Dillinger had four points and a key steal during that run, but was just 2-of-6 from the free throw line.
Southeast capitalized, using a 13-3 spurt of their own to open a 46-42 they’d never give back.
Lauryn Hardiman scored 11 points and grabbed eight boards, Kayla Young added 10 points and Lillian Anderson scored eight points, but grabbed game-highs with 11 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots.
Defensively, like the Cavs have been all year, they were great. They held Southeast to 36 percent shooting from the field, well below their scoring average, and out-rebounded them 35-23 and 11-5 on the offensive glass. Cuthbertson also limited Southeast’s offense to the point to where they had just two assists all game, but couldn’t overcome the huge disparity at the free throw line.
“I thought if we could get them in the halfcourt they were going to struggle to score on us,” Allen said. “I thought our man-to-man was pretty good and we went to a 1-3-1 as a change up to see what it would do and they struggled with it and it got us back in the game. I think it wore out its effectiveness in the fourth quarter.
“But even when we got down early the girls didn’t deviate from the game plan. They understood what they have to do to be successful. I was proud of them for that.”
The loss ended the Cavs season at 29-4. The 29 wins is eight more than any other Cuthbertson girls team.
And, the best news is, they lose just two of their top 10 scorers from this year, although the losses will be big with seniors Kayla Young and Kaylin McKinney, who have started together in the backcourt since their freshmen season.
“It means a lot to see the support of our families and the school,” Young said. “It means a lot and it’s definitely something that’s going to stick with me for a long time. We didn’t get the results, but I’m proud of this program and this team.
“I’m going to miss the chemistry and being together. This team has meant everything to me for the past five months. Just being around a good core group of people is something I’m going to miss.”
Allen will miss his senior guards, too. He praised them postgame for helping the Cavs get to this point, but just getting here isn’t Allen’s end game.
“We’ve been knocking on the door, but this year I thought we had a chance to get to the Great 8 or Final 4,” he said. “We were able to break through, and now you want to make this the standard every March. As a coach and as a program this is the place you want to get to. We’re a championship level team and now we have to keep it there.”