LUMBERTON — Filling out picks for a tournament bracket doesn’t just have to happen when the NCAA tournament lays out the field on selection Sunday in early March.
Last week, players and coaches from the 16 teams vying for the two Robeson County Shootout championships spoke on how tough the field is at the pre-tournament luncheon, and that rings true looking at the pairings on the boys and girls side. There are more contenders than pretenders in this tournament than there have been in recent years, meaning the next four days should be full of well-contested games.
After seeing every team in Robeson County play at least once this year, this is how I see the tournaments going from the first tip off tonight, to the final horn of the boys championship game at UNCP on Saturday.
Starting on the girls bracket, the top half features teams that have combined to win the last five titles in Dillon and Lumberton, two teams that could be on a collision course in the semifinals. Dillon plays at UNCP tonight against St. Pauls, and while I’m impressed with the defensive energy the Bulldogs have shown this year, Dillon’s experience should guide it to the opening-round win. The Lady Pirates come into the tournament after taking their first conference loss since February 2016 on Friday at Pinecrest. That loss should serve as a wake-up call for a team still figuring new roles out, but opening against South Robeson will be a good start in the right direction by a convincing margin.
A meeting of Lumberton and Dillon for the fifth straight tournament in that semifinal is only fitting, and expect Lumberton behind London Thompson to pull this win out to make it to a fourth-consecutive championship game. St. Pauls should have no problem with South Robeson, much like it did earlier in the year, to stay alive and make it to play Saturday in the fifth-place game.
Two championship caliber teams in Red Springs and Fairmont are on the bottom half of the bracket. Purnell Swett travels to Red Springs to start the Shootout, and expect the Lady Red Devils to carry momentum after winning five straight games to cruise in this matchup. Fairmont hosts a struggling Lake View squad to start the tournament and will have no problem protecting home court with its depth and experience.
In what might be a Three Rivers Conference tournament championship game later in the season, Red Springs at Fairmont in the semifinals will be a good contest, and the play of Taylynn Atkinson will be a big determining factor for the Lady Red Devils in the semifinals, after she serves her one-game suspension against Purnell Swett. If she can contribute well enough on the glass and help out Taya Jones scoring the ball, Red Springs will come out on top in a close game over the Lady Golden Tornadoes. Purnell Swett will stay alive to play St. Pauls on Saturday with a win over Lake View.
In the placing games, St. Pauls won’t need overtime to top the Lady Rams in a rematch of its season-opening win to take fifth place. Dillon and Fairmont will be a good matchup in the third-place game, with Fairmont pulling out a close win behind what will more than likely be a double-double effort from Kiara Page. It will be Lumberton against Red Springs in the championship for the second year in a row. That would be the third meeting between the two best teams in the county this season, and should be closer than the other two, but Thompson and company still seem to have enough to hold off Red Springs’ best shot to win back-to-back Shootout titles.
The boys side has six or seven teams that are capable of reeling off a run to the championship based on how things have unfolded through the first month to start the season. The first-round pairings are the same teams at the same location as the girls contests.
St. Pauls and Dillon at the top of the bracket pits a Bulldog team still figuring some pieces out against a team coming off a state runner-up finish last year in South Carolina in the Wildcats. That experience in tournament play will help lead Dillon to the semifinals. South Robeson has given scares to Red Springs, St. Pauls and Whiteville in recent games, and with its tough defense and grit could find itself in the game against Lumberton, but the firepower the Pirates possess will be too much in the end.
In the semifinal matchup, Dillon should be able to top Lumberton and make the championship game for the first time. St. Pauls and South Robeson was a good meeting that went down to the buzzer earlier this year, and this consolation should be more of the same, but with an opposite result due to the growth and adjustments that the Mustangs have made, as they stay alive for the fifth-place game.
In the bottom half of the bracket, a Fairmont versus Red Springs matchup is what many are expecting to see as both are off to strong starts in conference play. That meeting will be made possible as Fairmont blows past a winless Lake View team and Red Springs tops Purnell Swett in the opener.
Red Springs has looked much improved this year and will get its first of likely four cracks at ending the 20-plus game losing streak in the series to Fairmont in the semifinals, but the first win since 2010 over the Golden Tornadoes will have to wait for another time as Fairmont heads to its fourth title game in a row. Purnell Swett behind the scoring of Kyler Page will be enough to keep the Rams alive past Lake View.
In the fifth-place game, the meeting between Purnell Swett and South Robeson favors the athletes and scoring that the Rams have, even though the Mustangs defense will cause problems at times. Red Springs and Lumberton for the third time this season for third place will be a good matchup, with the Red Devils’ defense stealing the show like it did against Whiteville on Monday.
A championship between Fairmont and Dillon features two teams that could make deep runs in their respective state playoffs this year, and Shootout title No. 7 should go the Golden Tornadoes way courtesy of the pesky defense that starts with its senior guards Corry Addison and Derrick Arnette.