Triton took care of rival Harnett Central, using a late run to seal the home victory Tuesday, staying among the conference's elites in the process.
ERWIN— In the practice leading up to Tuesday's home matchup against Tri-County 3A Conference foe Harnett Central, Triton's Anastasia McDonald was one of the team's two seniors who keenly remembered the 18-point drubbing when the Lady Hawks last played host to their cross-county rivals.
During last year's season finale, McDonald watched her upperclassmen teammates' Senior Night spoiled by Lady Trojans center Syniah McMiller, who enjoyed one of the highest-scoring outputs of her career.
"We were just talking about getting ready for Syniah, because we just knew she was the most dominant player on the team," McDonald said after a 43-39 win Tuesday, holding the defending All-Record Girls Basketball Player of the Year to just 13 points.
Lady Hawks (7-1, 4-1 TCC) senior guard Kaila Cooney credited the defense and multiple efforts of her younger teammates who made it tough on McMiller and Co., for most of the game.
"Tristan (Ennis) and Abby (Hood) were the main ones on Syniah and that's what really worked out," said Cooney.
McMiller finished with 13 points, with just two coming in the fourth quarter that saw Ennis and Hood take turns making key plays on both ends.
Ennis (team-leading 14 points and 11 rebounds) got out on the break with just over a minute left, took a lead pass from McDonald and converted it into a basket, plus the foul, that gave the Lady Hawks a 41-39 lead.
"I thought Tristan did an excellent job tonight," Triton coach Wendy Simmons said, adding that the junior guard executed the gameplan coaches put in place at Monday's practice.
"I mean, if we offered MVP, she definitely gets it tonight. She played her heart out ... One of my assistant coaches said that 'the rest of the team needs to step up and play like she's doing, if nothing else, win for her because she's played her tail off tonight.'"
Moments later, Hood (13 points) took the ball away from Brittany Mills and sprinted to the other end of the floor, drawing a foul with just 24.2 seconds remaining. The sophomore wing converted both free throws to put the Lady Hawks ahead 43-39.
"That's what we need from Abby. She's always full-throttle, and she makes plays happen," Simmons said of Hood, who also added eight rebounds.
Even though the team hadn't played since Jan. 15 due to COVID-19 protocols, Central (2-1, 0-1 TCC) coach Chelsey Cabe says the 11-3 first-quarter deficit wasn't entirely related to rust.
"I know it had been a while since we played, but to me, I just don't think we were focused ... Triton was focused from the first time they went out there," said Cabe.
"We got out-hustled, got beat back on defense. It was nothing skill-wise, it was just effort."
Triton went up by as many as 13 points in the second, but succumbed to a late push by Central guard Lya Molyneaux, who scored nine of her game-high 15 points in the period.
Trailing 25-18 at the break, Mills powered a 9-2 Lady Trojans' run with back-to-back baskets to open the second half. McMiller scored on a hoop, plus the foul, that gave the visitors their first lead, 33-32, with just over a minute left in the third.
"It was like we woke up. We started doing the things we usually do," Cabe said of the third-quarter push.
"What I told the girls is, 'We have to consistently want it the whole time. When you find yourself in a hole, you have to dig your way out.'"
Though Simmons says her group was "a bit shocked" by how quickly the momentum swung, she was pleased by the team's ability to withstand the blows.
With the Lady Hawks down five and 4:21 left in the final quarter, Cooney connected on a 3-pointer that made it 37-35. A minute later, teammate A'Shari Watlington knocked down a trey of her own to give them back the lead, 38-37.
"I think we played more Triton basketball. We didn't let the defense take us out of what we were capable of doing," said Simmons.
"And when we had the good looks, we took the shot. And we didn't give up, even though we lost the lead."
The Lady Hawks finish their week hosting Lee County on Friday, while the Lady Trojans host Western Harnett Wednesday before Friday's home battle against league-leading Union Pines.
Donnell Coley can be reached at email@example.com or 910-230-2040.