Purr-fect Tigers conference champs, again
Undefeated Chapel Hill was comfortably on its way to a fourth straight conference championship for its senior class of players Monday night, but coach Sherry Norris was barking and scolding in the waning period against Cardinal Gibbons like it was a do-or-die situation.
You got the feeling the veteran Hall of Fame coach’s reality checks were preparing this special group of players for something bigger down the road, something more vital than dispatching the visiting Crusaders 46-28 to go 23-0 in the regular season and stand apart from any other Tigers team.
“It’s the first time in the history of the girls’ basketball team and the school — and I’ve been here for 37 years — that any team has gone undefeated (in the) regular season. That’s just tremendous on their part,” Norris said.
And then the caveat.
“We can’t lose our focus. When teams press us, we need to make sure we run our offense the way it’s supposed to be run,” Norris said. “If they get casual with their passes and they don’t execute properly, that’s to our disadvantage, and I want them to be the best they can be.
“That’s the reason these kids are so successful, because they’ve taken care of little things, like being in the right spot, making the right pass, giving the good ball fake and moving to meet passes.”
And she didn’t like the Tigers being up by 16 points and rushing shots on first looks instead of going into the secondary break, or getting into their sets for higher-percentage shots while erasing time from the clock.
“I think we’re playing good. There’s some things we could do better, but that’s what practice is for,” said senior co-captain Jamella Smith, a four-time all-conference selection whose 11 points gave her 1,170 career points.
Still, Monday’s historic milestone for a senior class whose four-year record is 93-17 was not lost on her.
“It’s an incredible feeling. This is the fourth regular-season conference championship, and at the end of the week we hope for back-to-back-to-back conference tournament champs” a fourth time, she said.
“The longest win streak in our history was 17 (games) and that was from the 1981 state championship team,” Smith said. “So when we met that streak, that was good. And when we passed it and kept on going we knew this was going to be a big year.”
Norris coached that '81 team, long before Chapel Hill became part of the 3-A Big Eight Conference.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association established the Big Eight when it realigned its conferences last year.
This is the fourth year running Chapel Hill qualified for the state playoffs. Smith’s freshman year the Tigers were bounced in the first round. In 2012 they reached the Elite Eight, and were state runner-up last year, “so this year is the golden year, unfinished business,” she said.
On Monday the Tigers used a balanced scoring attack, domination on the boards, and in-your-face defense throughout the game. They harassed Cardinal Gibbons repeatedly when the Crusaders had the ball, getting five consecutive steals during an eight-point run to take a 12-2 lead to close the first period.
But at 5:09 of the final period, senior forward and co-captain Catherine Romaine, a four-year all-conference player and 2013 state championship game MVP for the runner-up team, went down hard with an ankle injury on a no-call bump and was removed from the game. She was the game’s leading scorer with 14 points.
“It was hard to see her go down because we came in together, and we’ve been starting on varsity since we were freshmen. So when I saw her go down my heart kind of melted a little bit. But I know she’ll be back,” Smith said. “Cat’s a trooper.”