March 2, 2010
As Union Pines’ head coach John Lewkowicz and the Lady Viking basketball team prepare for Wednesday’s East regional semifinal in Greenville, they do so sailing in unprecedentedly deep, rough and uncharted waters.
The Vikes are in the midst of a magical run and the most memorable season for the program in over 20 years As one of the Elite 8 teams still standing in the 3A state playoffs, which began with a field of 64 teams, Union Pines (22-6) has won 14 of its last 15 contests.
Now they stand ready to face a Winterville South Central squad (25-4) that has seen these very same waters several times, having grown accustomed in recent years to the pressures and expectations that accompany the second week of a state basketball tournament.
For the Vikings this is a true story of triumph. However it is not a tale of overnight success, but rather one featuring a long Voyage, with the impetus being the moment Lewkowicz took over the coaching at the onset of Lady Vike senior stand-out, NC A&T signee, and all-state player Alishia Mosley’s sophomore season.
Getting the Boat Afloat: Lewkowicz was scouted in high school by none other than Billy Packer, and played as a starter under Bones McKinney at Wake Forest in the ACC basketball conference. So, Needless to say John knows a thing or two about the X’s and O’s of the game.
In his first year at the helm, Union Pines finished with an overall record of 10-14 and a CFV conference mark of 5-9 finishing fifth. However, the Vikes went on the road to give top-seeded D.H Conley a scare in the first round of the state playoffs as they just missed an upset coming up on the short side of a 74-72 score.
Though it was a loss, the game was a key moment for Lewkowicz and the program as it served to showcase a glimpse at the promising potential of his very young and undersized team.
Throughout that first year Lewkowicz constantly stated that the season was to serve as one collective learning process, in which the Vikes would lay down the foundation for future success.
The Viking Ship Picks Up Steam: With a new season beginning (2008-2009), Lewkowicz entered his second year confident that the Vikings would take the lessons learned from the past year and apply them on the court to develop into a competitive and fundamentally sound squad.
His hunch was right on:
Through 15 games, the Viking girls stood atop the CFV basketball standings with a record of 5-0 in league play, and an overall mark of 12-3, as Union Pines started to reap the seeds of success they strived so hard to sow; at that point in the season of the prior year, Union Pines was 1-5 in the league and 6-8 overall.
At that time Lewkowicz offered some commentary on the turnaround his team had made.
“We could be 14-1 right now,” Lewkowicz said, “and this is just fantastic. For these girls it has been something they really embraced whole-heartedly. Teamwork and hustle is something they pride themselves on and now they are enjoying the fruits of all that labor.”
“I am really proud of these girls for putting themselves in this position – this is exciting. It is something we talked about at the end of last year when we went to camp in June -- why are we doing all this --well it was because of the fact that we wanted to get better, but we also wanted to make a statement that we were a team that could be a factor in this league.”
At that point Mosley had consistently shined in her junior campaign to emerge as one of the elite guards in the CFV conference. Leading Union Pines with a scoring averaging better than 17 points a game, Mosley had surpassed the 20-point mark five times with a season game-highs of 26 points and 5 three-pointers.
Vikes Ship Slows Through Rough Waters, But Mosley Shines On: Almost every great basketball team team has one elite player: the one that the rock goes to when a basket is needed, the one that jumpstarts a game-changing run with a long three, a big block, defensive board, or steal and score.
Down the stretch of her junior year Mosley became that player for Union Pines.
As a team, Union Pines stumbled a bit late in the year finishing the CFV season 5-4 in its last 9 league contest for a second place conference finish, and ultimately going 18-8 overall by losing 4 of its 5 final games including a 63-44 upset loss to Northern Guilford in the first round of the state playoffs.
However, Mosley was as money as they come. On the year she led the Lady Vikings in scoring, rebounding, steals and three-point shooting, finishing the season with averages of 18.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.7 steals per game while making 2.7 three point shots per outing.
With her team in a tight race for first place in the Cape Fear Valley (CFV) conference, which came down to the final league contest, Mosley had a five-game stretch where she averaged better than 21 points, shot 69.2 percent from the field and knocked down 15 of 22 attempts from long-range for a 68.2 percent success rate from behind the arc. On the year she sank 3 game-winning three-pointers and twice forced overtimes by burying long treys.
As a result she finished as the runner-up (by one vote) for the CFV most valuable player, but soon earned bigger accolade by garnering All-State honors. Mosley was among just 18 3-A players to be named to the All-State list and the only representative from the CFV conference. It was the first time Union Pines had a girls’ all-state player in more than six years.
Vikes Struggle to Gain Back Speed: As Union Pines entered this season, three of its CFV league foes (Westover, Western Harnett and Overhills) were included in Maxpreps.com’s Xcellent Top 25 rankings. Union Pines opened the season by being upset at home by Jordan Mathews. However, they would bounce back to win the Pilot Cup at North Moore where Mosley won her second MVP trophy of her career in the intra-county tournament.
Alas, the Vikes then opened conference play at 1-2, as it seemed the pundits may have been right when they left Union Pines out of the preseason rankings.
Hold On, Vikings FULL STEAM AHEAD!!!
The turning point of this year’s season for the Vikes came in a critical contest in their fifth league game. At 2-2 in the conference and 9-5 overall Union Pines traveled to Lillington to face the defending CFV league champion Western Harnett Lady Eagles.
The Eagles entered the game as the No. 4 ranked 3A team in the state and in a first place tie with the Overhills Jaguars in the conference. However, UP pulled off the 62-50 upset in convincing fashion to remain a viable factor in the CFV league race for first place.
“This was a huge game for us,” said Viking head coach John Lewkowicz. “We were able to maintain poise, control the tempo of the game and take care of the basketball, which is something we did not do in our two losses to Overhills and the game we dropped at Westover."
In those three loses, the Vikes held leads late in the third quarter and into the fourth period only to see the opposition capitalize on turnovers to make runs and capture comeback wins.
“The lessons we learned during that growing phase of the season really paid off for us tonight,” said Lewkowicz. “Our last two games on the road have been pretty solid, which indicates some growth in maturity as a team. The biggest thing about our play of late is everybody is contributing. Even the girls coming in (off the bench) are doing those crucial little things and that is what we are all about; each player has to accept their role for us to thrive.”
Mosley turned in a huge performance in the game scoring 13 of her team-high 25 points in the first half and finished with 6 rebounds, five assists and three steals. Vike freshman Tyler Ross had 16 rebounds, while scoring eight. Junior co-captain Tyesha McLean finished with 17 points, seven assists and six steals, while Sophomore Crystal Hicks had 6 points for Union Pines along with eight boards, four assists and three steals.
From there, Union Pines finished the league schedule with 8 straight wins, including critical victories late in the season against Westover and Overhills. Mosley and McLean combined for 47 points in their 65-56 win at Overhills to improve to 5-2 in league play. On the night Mosley went 5-9 from behind the arc on her way to a game-high 26 points, while grabbing eight boards, dishing out four assists and making two blocks. McLean scored 21 while tallying 5 rebounds four steals and four assists.
Needing a win to stay in the running for the league crown, Union Pines avenged an earlier loss at Westover as Mosley and McLean again combined to score 47 points to lead the Vikes to a 51-39 league victory against the league leading Lady Wolverines.
Westover entered the night alone in first place, and was the last team to defeat Union Pines. With the victory, the Vikings extended their current winning streak to nine games, while capturing a share of first in the league, as they were tied with the Wolverines at 9-2.
Union Pines would then breeze through to the CFV Tourney final, where it fell to Westover (on the Wolverines home floor), despite being the top-seed in the championship. The Vikes 58-56 OT loss snapped an 11-game winning streak. But since then, the Union Pines girls' have not looked back – not even for a quick over-the-shoulder glance.
After notching a 22-point victory at home in the first round of the playoffs this Union Pines bunch has been in uncharted waters and fared quite well. Friday the Lady Vikings completed an amazing run through the first half of the 2010 NCHSAA 3A state basketball tournament, with a 54-49 victory over Eastern Guilford, to advance to the Elite 8 and earn a Sectional Championship.
Mosley set the pace in the Vikes' third round game by scoring 14 points in the first quarter and going 5 of 7 from downtown in the first 9 minutes Friday. She would finish with a game high 21 points, while her strong supporting cast of McLean (15 points, 3 steals and 3 assists), Hicks ( 12 points, 14 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals), and Ross (13 rebounds, 6 points) all delivered clutch outings.
Though untested, they now entered the last brunt of the storm but land IS in sight.
Only time will tell if Union Pines' trip ends with a State Championship. Win or loss though, from here on out, it has been one Fantastic Viking Voyage.