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Sugar Bears overcome sloppy first half to win County Clash

Jan. 15—The Sugar Bears basketball team extended its winning streak over Tuscola to seven with a 56-38 County Clash win on Friday in Waynesville.

"I'm extremely proud of this group of girls that have had to overcome a lot of adversity the last couple of weeks and throughout the course of the whole season," Pisgah head coach Brandon Holloway said.

While Pisgah was still the favorite in this one, the game was by no means as cut and dry as it has been in recent years.

"The girls played really well. I felt like we handled the man-to-man pressure well Friday night. We started fouling in the final two minutes of the fourth, but they were able to make their foul shots," said Tuscola girls' head coach Heath Sutton.

This year's Tuscola squad has already matched last year's win total with eight regular season games to go, proving that they're on the upswing as a program.

"We knew Tuscola was a much-improved team," Holloway said. "Coach [Heath] Sutton has done a good job of getting them improved over the last two years. We knew it would be a dog fight tonight with it being a rivalry and us having a lot of young girls."

Pisgah has also dealt with issues of its own — whether that be graduating seniors or the injury bug.

Senior Karlie Robinson hasn't played in the last three games, while senior Whitney Boone has missed the last four. During the game with Tuscola, senior Elizabeth Smith went down with a lower leg injury in the third quarter and did not return to the game.

"You go back to the old Patriot days of Bill Belichick and the next man up mentality, and that's what this has been," Holloway said. "I told our coaches, 'You don't get pure gold without going through the fire.' This team is getting tested. They're going through the fire. At the end of the season, I think we're going to have some big, big accomplishments that are going to take place."

That leaves one senior playing significant minutes this season for Pisgah — Dot Mills. The guard was considered to be one-half of one of the best backcourts in Western North Carolina alongside Boone. Without Boone, Mills has had to step to the plate and be a leader on and off the court for the Pisgah girls.

"She's an unbelievable leader," Holloway said. "She's had to lead this team in situations she didn't think she was going to have to. We've had a slew of seniors that, unfortunately, right now, are not able to play because of injuries. Dot is the one lone senior on the floor, and she's doing a great job of coaching on the floor and leading and playing with that effort."

As always, the game was played in front of a packed crowd eager to see the two schools face off once again in Western North Carolina's best rivalry.

"Man, it's exciting," Holloway said. "It's fun to be in a competitive, hard-fought game. The crowd was into it. That's what you want. You want this for the kids. Both sides get to experience that. It's something special that you don't get anywhere else."

The game started extremely slow on both ends. At the end of the first quarter, Pisgah trailed the Mountaineers 8-4. By halftime, they had taken the lead, but it was still just 16-14.

At one point, Pisgah was 1 of 27 from the field. At halftime, they were shooting just 11%.

Pisgah has seen this trouble a lot this year on offense. The shots just haven't seemed to fall like they have in years past. A lot of that can be credited to the team being so young. On Friday night, a lot of it came down to the stop-and-start nature of the game, with multiple fouls being called early.

"The first half, there was a lot of foul situations — a lot of dead ball situations," Holloway said. "Both teams were getting into a lot of half-court sets. I think both of us struggled in the half-court game. In the third quarter, the game got a flow going, and we were able to get out and go up and down. That's what we need to happen."

Pisgah is much more used to playing in the transition game more often, something they've had to get accustomed to due to having a team lacking a lot of size to dominate in the paint.

But despite the poor shooting, there was a silver lining to the first half for Pisgah — their defense had stepped up to the challenge.

"We were shooting 11% at halftime," Holloway said. "And I told the girls, 'We're 11%. We're up by two. Keep playing your tails off defensively and try to get out in transition. Eventually, shots will start falling for us.'"

And the shots did start falling. Both teams managed to get loosened up and get their offense going in the third quarter. The Bears outscored Tuscola 19-18 in the period, with both teams surpassing their first-half point totals in the third quarter alone.

"We established our transition game and were able to get out and go," Holloway said. "That allowed the girls to just play and not think. With a young group, that's what you want to see happen. As that happened, they started to play with more confidence, and shots started falling."

The fourth quarter saw the Sugar Bears do what they do best — use their conditioning to pull away. They outscored Tuscola 21-6 in the final frame to win the game.

Mills posted a double-double with a stat line of 22 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and a block.

"I'm pleased with their effort. I'm pleased with Dot being able to lead this young group along and giving them the confidence — trusting in them," Holloway said. "She's trying to do everything she can to make this team successful. As she does that, these young girls are coming along and following suit."

One of those young players is freshman Jade Cody, who has burst on to the scene as of late. She finished the game with career-high points (8) and rebounds (12). Her dozen rebounds led the game.

On the other side of the court, senior Karsen Cherry would not let her Mounties go down without a fight, leading the team in points (16) and rebounds (8)