RONDA — Coming off a pair of tough non-conference defeats, the Avery Lady Vikings made the trip to East Wilkes looking to break through into the win column and give head coach Allison Phillips her first victory since being named as head coach during the offseason.
Playing with guts and grit, the Lady Vikings overcame a deficit and pulled ahead by virtue of key baskets and tenacious defense en route to a 36-27 victory.
The winning rally was sparked in the fourth quarter by one of the Lady Vikings’ few holdovers from last season’s state playoff team, senior Tiffany Brocco, who tallied four of her game-high 12 points in the final stanza to propel the Big Red to a non-conference triumph.
“Our pre-conference schedule is far from easy with Ashe, North Wilkes and Watauga. We’re playing some tough teams right off the bat with a very young group of girls,” Phillips said of her club following the win. “We’re telling them to hang on through the trials and the gauntlet of great teams before we get to the conference. They’re facing people who, besides Mountain Heritage and maybe Mitchell, they probably will not see in conference that are as intense, big and long as these non-conference opponents. For me that’s a good thing, it’s frustrating with a lot of young players who want to win, and we definitely want to win, but we’ve seen a lot of improvement from game to game.”
Avery again faced adversity in its latest matchup with the Cardinals, as the team opened with a three-point lead only to fall behind by seven points by midway through the second stanza and remain on the trailing end of the scoreboard at the intermission.
During the third quarter, the Lady Vikings roared back with its defense, as a steal and basket by Alexis Stines helped the Big Red to tie the game at 20-20 as the teams entered the fourth quarter.
Phillips credited a number of players for their defensive presence who were difference makers down the stretch.
“Marisol Guzman came off the bench and played amazing defense for us. She went in and was such a spark for us. She’s only about 5-4 or 5-5, and to go in and play a post at that height speaks to her toughness,” Phillips noted. “On one play she grabbed a rebound and was swarmed by three East players, but she was able to keep possession of the ball and draw a foul. Lila Cantrell also gave us a lift and different people have been stepping up for us in each game.”
In addition to the defensive pressure, neither team had a sterling shooting night from the floor, as both teams hovered around the 20-percent mark in made attempts. As the fourth quarter unfolded, Brocco showed her veteran presence with a free throw to give Avery its first lead since the early stages of the matchup. East took a two-point lead at 25-23 midway through the fourth quarter before the Lady Vikings took over, scoring 11 of the game’s final 15 points to secure the win.
As part of the flurry, Brocco drained a pair of jumpers from the right corner, and teammate Reagan Hughes poured in a basket. East would only get as close as three points over the final three minutes of the game, as the Lady Vikings salted away the game by sinking its free throws to earn the win.
The win was not just a milestone for the coach, but also a benchmark for the team as it continues to grow together in the early stages of the season. With the team’s top five scorers and five starting seniors from last year having graduated, Avery entered this year’s campaign with players who had seen minimal time on the floor in their prep careers before this season.
“We literally rotated about eight or nine girls last season, and every one of them was a senior besides Tiffany, Lila and Reagan, who probably had more minutes than anyone. It’s hard because it’s almost like you have all-new varsity players, which can be good because they don’t have bad habits, but they’re also a bit timid out there on the floor,” Phillips explained. “We lost a number of vocal leaders from last year’s team, and a lot of our girls have not had to step up and play big minutes. I think in the first game of the season they surpassed the number of minutes they played for the entire season last year. It’s a whole new team dynamic and culture.”
Even with a coaching change from within the staff as in Avery’s case, every coach is different and employs his or her own unique style and method of coaching. As well, this year’s Lady Vikings team continues to learn and grow along with their coach in the early portion of its schedule which they hope pays dividends as the calendar turns into January and February with the conference season.
“As much as I’ve learned from being around Matt [former head coach Wiseman], I do things a little differently than he does. It’s been about putting my process in and having more intense practices,” Phillips added. “For the most part, many of the girls played JV for me previously, so they kind of knew what to expect, and our freshmen are just jumping in and doing fairly well for us. From game one to game two and game three, I’m so proud of how the girls have responded, especially in the fourth quarter. We roared back to get a lead, handle the pressure and never looked back, and how we finished that game was testament to how we’re growing as a team.”
Avery’s junior varsity girls team came away with a convincing road win as well in its matchup at East Wilkes.
The Big Red will look to get extend its win streak with a road rematch early in the week at Ashe County, followed by a home game this Thursday, Dec. 5, against Watauga, a game that was rescheduled to Viking Gym from the original schedule. Avery’s scheduled home game with North Wilkes for Friday, Dec. 6, has been moved to Monday, Dec. 9, in Newland.