Mustang Girls Produce Amazing Turnaround
The North Moore Mustangs started the 2006-07 girls' basketball season with a 45-36 loss to Pinecrest in The Pilot Cup Tournament on Nov. 18. The season ended Feb. 24 with a 79-40 loss to national powerhouse Bishop McGuinness in a 1-A sectional final.
In between those games the girls from North Moore, winners of only one game in the previous two seasons, followed an improbable storybook script that produced an 18-11 record and saw them advance deeper into the state playoffs than any other Moore County basketball team.
The Mustangs also advanced deeper into the playoffs than any other Yadkin Valley Conference member, including conference powers Chatham Central and Thomasville. North Moore finished third with a 7-5 record in what proved to be one of the state's most powerful 1-A conferences. Four of the losses were to the regular-season co-champions Chatham Central and Thomasville. Another loss to Thomasville came in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
"We lost one to East Montgomery in conference," head coach Sammy McNeill said. "In the Christmas Tournament at Asheboro we had to play Eastern Randolph, the number one 3-A team in the state. They beat us and then Jordan-Matthews beat us by eight in the Christmas Tournament."
The first victory, 60-40 over Faith Christian on Nov. 20, came between the opening loss in The Pilot Cup and the tournament's consolation game against 3-A Union Pines. The Mustangs won that one 47-44. A 43-38 loss in a rematch with county rival Union Pines evened their record at 2-2. The Mustangs made basketball history the rest of the way.
"They played great team ball," McNeill said by way of explaining how the Mustangs accomplished such a dramatic turnaround. "At the beginning of the season I would have told you we'd win three or four games. We really didn't know what we had then. It turned out to be 18 games by the time it was all over."
Playing With Nine
North Moore started off the season with just 11 players on the roster. One decided not to play and another moved to the Fayetteville area very early in the season.
The Mustangs played the rest of the way, and won most of their games, with just nine girls.
Seven of the girls played on the 2005-06 team that finished 1-23. Sophomore Miranda Love and seniors Megan McNeill, Logan Monroe, Brittany Harper, Jasmine Covington, Brandi Chandler and Ashley Powers were the returning players. Senior Allison Braswell and freshman Hillary Walters were the only new members on the squad.
"I'll tell you about our team," McNeill said. "Each one of them has got something a little special they bring to the team. The further we got into the season the more we realized what each one could do. We figured out a pretty good pattern and over the last 10 or 12 games of the season we've been on a run. We lost to Thomasville in the last game of the year and to Thomasville in the conference tournament. We were on like a six-game winning streak before that. We won one in the tournament and we won two in the state. That's about nine games out of 12. So that's a pretty good little run.
"They were pretty good basketball players once they realized they could play basketball. They've been called softball players forever. Once they started figuring this game out and gained a little confidence -- it's amazing what will happen, what a little confidence will do for you."
Braswell and Walters were the final pieces of the puzzle that became a Cinderella story by the end of the season.
"Hillary (Walters) has been coming along," McNeill said. "She's been picking up some stuff as we go along this year and we're proud of her. Hillary and Miranda will be pretty good to build the team around next year. They will be our only returning players.
"Allison (Braswell) transferred in last year. But it was right after basketball, so she didn't play basketball last season. We really weren't sure how good a basketball player she was until we saw her this year. Braswell coming along proved to be huge for us. I know there's not a better free throw shooter in this conference, maybe anywhere around here. She made 106 out of 120 free throws (88 percent) during conference play. That's a pretty good percentage.
"She missed two against Thomasville in the conference tournament. I'll tell you, we ran real hard out at softball practice. We worked them hard and then they came in here and played and maybe that had a little something to do with it. They were winded the day before and they were winded that night."
Six of the Lady Mustangs are also softball players. They had softball scrimmages scheduled at Burlington before the sectional final against Bishop McGuinness last Saturday.
"We thought about going to the scrimmages and then going on up the road to play the basketball game," McNeill said. "But we decided to just focus on the basketball game. One more basketball game, then we'll worry about softball."
Braswell, when asked how she came by that fabulous free throw stroke, said, "A lot of practice. I didn't used to be that good. My freshman year I struggled, so I had to practice more."
The Right Spirit
All of the Mustangs proved to be polite and well-mannered in addition to their obvious talent on the basketball court. Interviews with any individual team member were always punctuated by "thank yous" and "yes, sirs."
"That's one thing about the kids up here," McNeill said, "especially this group that I've coached. I've coached some of these girls since they were 9 or 10. They come from good homes and good parents. When you talk, they generally listen. They're always respectful, too. To come to practice and not worry about discipline issues and things like that -- it makes it an easy job to coach."
McNeill should know. One of his experienced seniors was his own daughter, Megan.
"She handles it pretty well," he said when asked how his girl coped with being the coach's daughter. "She usually just smiles when I get on to her, grins, and keeps on going. She's heard it all before."
Megan laughed when asked the same question. "I get fussed at more, obviously," she said, "but it's okay. It doesn't bother me. I'm used to it."
All of the girls were enthusiastic about being part of a team that pulled off such a tremendous turnaround.
"It feels good considering we only won one game last year," Megan said. "It's a big accomplishment. We put in a lot of hard work to get this far."
"It feels good knowing that everyone is proud of us," said Braswell, the team's point guard.
"It feels like we went through a while where everyone thought 'Well, you know, they've been on a losing streak and they're not going to be a big deal.' We came out here and proved them wrong," said Chandler, the team's defensive specialist. "It feels great."
"It feels good because people doubted us from the get-go and now they know we're good," said Covington, a guard with a deadly outside shot.
"It feels awesome," said Logan Monroe before the sectional final game. "We haven't done it in a while and we're really excited. We're going really good right now. So, hopefully, we'll get another one."
North Moore's low post players, Brittany Harper and Ashley Powers, echoed the team's enthusiasm for yet another challenge before the 1A Sectional final against Bishop McGuinness.
"We haven't won this many games since my freshman year and we didn't win that many then," Harper said. "It feels so great."
"I'm so excited," Powers said. "I can't believe we made it to the third round. I can't wait to go play."
The two non-seniors were equally enthusiastic about North Moore's turnaround season.
"It was a big surprise," sophomore Miranda Love said. "It's a whole lot different than last year. We worked really hard to get there, and I think we deserve everything we've done so far. I was hoping we would get this far, but I never expected we would."
"I'm glad to be on this team," said Walters, the lone freshman on the squad. "But I'm going to miss the seniors next year. Even though I won't have them picking on me anymore because I'm the baby of the team."
Love agreed that the seniors would be sorely missed next season. But the cupboard won't be entirely bare.
"The jayvees had a real good year," coach McNeill said. "They even beat Thomasville at the end of the season and that hadn't happened in a long time. So, yeah, they had a good year. Andy Garner coached them."
McNeill gave plenty of credit to his staff, as well. He also included an eighth senior, scorebook keeper Sandy Boles, as part of the success story of the Mustangs.
"I told my team I'd replace one of them before I'd replace Sandy," the coach said. "She's pretty good and she was there for us all the time.
"Don't forget the two assistant coaches, Cecil Monroe and Mark Braswell. They big-time helped and had a lot to do with these girls turning it around, too. Give them some credit, because they deserve it. They did everything I've asked them to do, plus. So anything good said about me needs to be said about them, too.
"I'm just the motivator and the pusher-along. I let them work on offense and defense and I'd just get them to go out there and execute. That's pretty much what I try to do.
"It's been a great season. I told the girls if we go down we want to go down against the best, the team that wins the state championship."
"They're team players all the way, and they are totally unselfish. Early in the year I told them to think about selecting team captains. They talked it over and decided everyone should be a team captain. So we finished the season with nine team captains."
One of the unfortunate facts of life in a playoff system that determines the state champion is that only one team ends the season winning the last game. North Moore played giant-killer all season long. But the last contest wasn't your ordinary Jack and the Beanstalk type giant. It was more like a match between Jack and Godzilla. Bishop McGuinness just proved to be too much for the Mustangs to overcome.
But it didn't matter that a storybook finish didn't materialize.
The overachieving young ladies representing North Moore gave a good account of themselves from the beginning to the end. And in the end they were winners because they never gave up on the way to the best season the Mustang girls have had in nearly a decade.
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