Coach Aaron Grier thought the fourth-seeded East Forsyth girls basketball team would be special this year. And, as the season finally tips off, he's seeing glimpses of that.
It began with an ugly, yet "good" win, as Grier described a Saturday afternoon game at Atkins High School. The Eagles defeated fifth-seeded Mount Tabor 53-48 in the first round of the Pepsi Bracket in the Mary Garber Holiday Tip-Off Classic.
East Forsyth led early, with a 9-0 run in a span of six minutes in the first quarter. The Eagles ended the quarter ahead 14-4, but the Spartans (1-1) clawed back throughout the remainder of the game.
Mount Tabor took its lone, brief lead late. Three layups from Ciara Wright to start the fourth quarter — the last with 3:41 remaining — pushed the Spartans ahead 44-42. But the Eagles (1-0) held on.
And Grier can look to last year to see how the team's resiliency has carried over into a new season. East Forsyth had its postseason run abruptly end on Feb. 26 with a 55-53 loss to Mint Hill Rocky River in the first round of the NCHSAA Class 4-A playoffs. Jaydn Hoover, a sophomore at the time, had a game-high 23 points as the Eagles finished the season at 16-9.
"That was one of those intangible moments of not giving up," Grier said of last season's playoff loss. "We were down pretty much the whole game, to come back to take the lead, and end up losing it by (two points). It was great effort from each of them.
"I think that's when I knew we were going to be special coming into this season and into our seniors' season. They've matured. That's when we went from drinking milk to eating meat now."
A testament to that may be Hoover and Monay Galloway's performances in the fourth quarter in Saturday's win. The juniors combined for nine points, as the Eagles pulled away from the Spartans again.
And Grier has plenty of returning players from last season. That includes Hoover, who scored a team-high 20 points against the Spartans, and Galloway, chipping in 14 points. Erin Hall, the team's only senior, is back along with junior Destiny Long and sophomore Nia Belcher.
According to Grier, the Eagles will likely see the return of Karleigh N'diaye, a junior who suffered a meniscus tear, in mid-January. Of the Eagles' 13-player roster, seven are additions this year — four of them freshmen.
"Our offense, we can take care of the ball more, we can shoot better and we can see the court better," Hoover said of the team's growth since last season. "Last season, we had a lot of tunnel vision, and some of us were selfish and we couldn't finish like we should have."
According to Coach Rick Anderson, Mount Tabor has seen improvement from last season as well. His players have a new mindset, after a 38-36 loss to Watauga in the first round of the Class 3-A playoffs on Feb. 26. Anderson has long-term goals for the season — including in the Piedmont Triad 3-A.
"We want to be in the conference battle, down at the end," Anderson said. "And, obviously, we want to go to the state playoffs and we think we have some parts that all things are about the draw, and we can make some noise."
After last season, the Spartans lost standout Danielle White to graduation. She was one of two seniors, along with Molly Rivers. The Spartans have filled the void — and then some.
Sophomore Lily Pereira stepped into Rivers' role. Mount Tabor will soon have Na'Siah McKinney, a 6-foot freshman, out on the court as well. Anderson said McKinney suffered a finger injury, but should be back next week.
And standout Wright, one of six seniors, has matured as well. She ended that loss against the Eagles with a game-high 29 points — 12 in the second quarter.
"This loss is going to help us grow this season because this kind of helped us realize the potential we have to be good," Wright said. "We want to go far in the playoffs. You know, last season we lost first-round. So we want to get back there, win conference — we have a lot of goals.
"I feel like this has set us up."
Three other first-round games tipped off in the Pepsi Bracket on Saturday.
No. 1 West Forsyth defeated No. 8 West Stokes 55-44, with Shakira Baskerville scoring a game-high 20 points for the Titans. She made 7 of 11 free throws in the fourth quarter. Maddie Scheier, a freshman, chipped in 15 points as well.
Nicole Scott led No. 3 Forbush to a 63-54 win over No. 6 Winston-Salem Christian. The senior scored 20 points, making 8 of 9 free throws in the fourth quarter. Christiana Young, a freshman, and sophomore Julianna Walter each scored 14 points for Winston-Salem Christian.
No. 2 Glenn routed No. 7 Reagan 61-16. Jacee Busick, a Charlotte signee, and Lycez Adams, a 6-foot-1 junior, each scored 17 points for the Bobcats.