SUSSEX — Surry County missed 10 of its first 11 free throw attempts and struggled to put the basketball through the cylinder. Yet, at halftime, the Lady Cougars held a 19-16 advantage on the scoreboard against Lancaster in the 1A state quarterfinal round.
Surry coach Maze Toomer went over the struggles with his squad in the halftime locker room and found the solution to cure the ills. The answer was to push the defense into overdrive. It worked to perfection. The Lady Cougars put the pedal to the floor. They flattened the Lancaster offense, outscoring the Lady Red Devils 14-0 in the frame to push the advantage to 33-16 heading into the final stanza.
“We were missing free throws and missing layups, and we knew we had to take care of that,” Toomer said. “But we are predicated on defense. That is where we put our focus.”
Point guard NeOndra’ Kelly ignited Surry’s offense in the second half with a pair of driving layups to put her squad in front 23-16. An Ajah Lee bucket followed by a JeRhonda King basket and free throw extended the margin to a dozen, 28-16, with 3:32 remaining in the third quarter.
Lancaster (20-7) had trouble getting into its offense throughout the period. Surry added to its lead. Tri-Rivers District Player of the Year Bre’cha Byrd ended the stanza draining a 14-foot buzzer-beater to stretch the Surry County (25-4) advantage to 17 points, 33-16. Kelly triggered the decisive third quarter with her two quick scores.
“We had a good talk at halftime,” Kelly said. “We had to pick it up and do what we were supposed to do. In the end, it was us coming together and executing.”
She was executing indeed. On the offensive end, it starts with the point guard, and Kelly delivered as she has the entire season.
“She has bloomed this year,” Toomer said of his senior point guard. “We’re allowing her to play freely and make decisions, which is what a point guard is supposed to do.”
The Lady Red Devils had to chase defensively and were forced to foul in the final eight minutes to get back into the contest. Unlike the beginning of the game, the Lady Cougars were deadly at the charity stripe ending all Lancaster hope of a late rally. Surry went 10-13 from the line.
Early on, it appeared the contest might go down to the wire. The Lady Red Devils struck first with a Laila Waters basket 47 seconds into the game. The 2-point Lancaster lead was the largest by either team in the quarter. The lead changed hands eight times in the frame. Lancaster’s Aniyah Brown scored the final points of the quarter on a basket with 27 seconds left to give her squad a 10-9 advantage.
Maya Drew triggered a 9-0 Surry County run with a basket with 7:02 remaining in the first half to put the Lady Cougars in front 11-10. Surry would not trail again. Byrd netted 6 points in the run, capped by a bucket with 5:23 left in the second quarter to extend the lead to 19-10. The Lady Cougars did not score again until the third quarter.
Lancaster had its problems offensively, but it managed three field goals in the final 4:13 in the second quarter. Jasmine Curry’s basket with 1:23 left in the first half brought her team within 3 points, 19-16. The Red Devils would not score again until Waters put the ball through the cylinder with 7:23 left in the game.
Lancaster cut the margin to 14 points, 37-23, following a Harmony Taylor 3-pointer with 4:59 left in the game. The Lady Cougars put an end to any thoughts of a Lancaster rally with a 7-0 run, capped by a pair of Kelly free throws with 3:39 left in the game.
Kelly scored a game-high 16 points. Byrd scored 15 points. JeRhonda King netted 8 for Surry County.
Lancaster’s Waters and Khalilia Harding scored 6 points each to lead the Red Devils.
With the win, Surry County is one win away from playing in the state final for the third consecutive season. The Lady Cougars fell short in the title game against Parry McCluer in the last two seasons. A win against Riverheads Tuesday. March 10, at Sussex-Central would give the Lady Cougars a third crack at a title. Byrd is happy she and her squad are still playing basketball.
“We started rough (tonight), but we pulled together, stayed together and got the win,” Byrd said. “It’s a blessing to be still playing. I’m grateful. We’re grateful. We’ll just keep staying together, playing hard, listening to the coaches so we can achieve our ultimate goal. God is good.”