Graham has managed the Lady Pirates since 1997, winning six Shootout titles and a 2001 state 4A championship with a roster packed with all-conference standouts. He has watched his players win the majority of games against the Lady Rams by halftime with reserves seeing more action than starters.
Tonight, things are different.
“It’s not about how well we’ve played in the past,” Graham said. “It’s about how well we play now because they’re a different team.”
The Lady Pirates (12-10, 4-5) will try and rebound from its first loss in 35 games to the Lady Rams (13-8, 5-4) on senior night in front of what Graham expects to be a “neat environment” at Lumberton. Swett, which hasn’t made the playoffs in 10 seasons, could capture the Southeastern Conference’s No. 2 seed with a win and a Richmond loss at Scotland.
“I know Lumberton is going to try and knock us out from the jump ball,” Swett coach Danyel Locklear said. “We don’t want to get too excited or too worked up, we just want to play under control.”
Keeping their composure is the Lady Rams’ main objective against Lumberton’s full-court press.
Swett nearly got too excited in Tuesday’s win over Hoke, squandering two double-digit leads with poor ball-handling before securing their 13th victory in the final moments. Senior Laura Bird had a monster performance, pouring in 28 points with a school-record 22 rebounds to help Swett survive.
Graham said Thursday that Swett’s drive for second in the SEC is good for girls basketball in the area. Prior to this season, Swett had won just four conference games since 2006.
Rivalries — in any sport — lose their luster when they’re one-sided.
“I think they’re the most improved team in our county and Danyel has done a heck of a job,” Graham said. “Swett is a well-rounded team playing with a lot of purpose. They’re playing hard and it should be a really good game.”
The Lady Pirates have zeroed in on Bird, the county’s leading candidate for player of the year. Along with senior guard Kayla Lewis, Bird was Swett’s top low-post threat during a record-setting 7-0 start to the season, but hit a rough stretch offensively in late December.
She’s back at full strength in the paint and more dominant than ever.
“We’ve got to shoot the ball well and keep Laura off the boards,” Graham said. “For us to win, those two things have to happen.”
During Swett’s 52-43 win over Lumberton on Jan. 24, Bird had a double-double by the end of the third quarter before finishing with a game-high 19 points and 11 rebounds. With their multi-sport captain as the catalyst, the Lady Rams have won three of their last four games since that memorable night in Pembroke.
“Laura is very consistent and she is somebody we can count on as a team,” Locklear said. “I can’t say enough about what she brings to the table.”
Bird will be matched up inside with Lady Pirates’ leading scorer Keanna McNeil, who despite injuries this season, nearly averages a double-double.
“It’s their senior night so we expect a hard game,” Bird said.
Graham says a Lumberton victory would help ease the sting of an up-and-down season and gives his team a confidence boost heading into next week’s conference tournament.
“I think our girls are excited for (Friday) night,” Graham said. “We’ve played well in spurts this year but then had stretches where we can’t score. That’s kind of been our season. There is no excuse this time of year, though. You should know your stuff by now.”
Reach Staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at email@example.com