LUMBERTON — With eight teams remaining in the NCHSAA 4A girls state playoffs, the room for error and the level of competition goes up.
For the Lumberton girls basketball team, the talent of its fourth-round opponent, Millbrook, is the likes of a team it hasn’t seen this year. Millbrook has five players that have signed to play college basketball — four of which are Division I — and breezed through its conference much like the Lady Pirates.
“They’ve got really good girls and it’s going to be challenging, but I feel like our girls are ready for this,” Lumberton coach Danny Graham said. “The kids have a good mindset and are eager.”
No. 2 Lumberton (27-1) hosts No. 3 Millbrook (27-3) tonight with a 7 p.m. tipoff, and fans should prepare to pay a little extra to get in to see this regional semifinal game with the gate price going up to $9 per person.
The Lady Wildcats are the defending 4A state champs, also won the title in 2013 and 2012. In the past seven seasons, Millbrook has went to the fourth round six times and made it to the regional finals five times. Now Lumberton stands in the way of a sixth appearance.
“I told them that they have worked hard to play at home and to be in this position at home and that I’m happy about that,” Graham said. “Everything is in your advantage and they need to make the most of it.”
Coming off a 70-46 win over South Central on Saturday, Lumberton is in its second straight regional semifinal game. Last year, Hillside handed the Lady Pirates a 60-29 loss before falling to Millbrook 58-51 in the regional finals.
Both teams will look to impose their will in the paint with their dominant frontcourt players. Millbrook senior forward Andreal Bass, a Lenoir-Rhyne signee, scored 20 points in the third-round win over Green Hope and Morehead State signee Sisalynn Norman are two leaders for the frontcourt.
Lumberton’s post duo of Madison Canady and Destiny Hardin will look to continue their above-average play inside. Canady scored 20 points in the playoff win over against Wakefield. While their scoring is important, rebounding is a major focal point.
“We have to rebound the ball well and get back on defense,” Graham said. “Our guards have to come help rebound too. It all goes together.”
Reserve forward Alexandria Simpson, who is coming off a career-high nine-point performance against South Central, giving a lift of the bench also is something Graham is hoping to see in a matchup of this magnitude.
“I hope that she continues her positive play because it gave us a lot of positive play out of it,” Graham said.
The Lady Wildcats wings will give the Lumberton backcourt of Jasmine McBride, London Thompson and Marlena McClure a challenge with seniors Kai Crutchfield and Zairya West. Crutchfield signed with N.C. State and West is a Norfolk State signee. Joining that backcourt duo is senior Dazia Powell, who playing through a knee injury and was standout for the team when healthy and committed to Old Dominion.
McClure’s shooting will need to carry over from the Lady Pirates last two wins with five combined 3-pointers in the last two games against Leesville Road and South Central.
Graham has coached the program to the peak of the state level with a state championship coming back in 2002, but the nerves on the players on this year’s team are a little different than those of the players from the past.
“I couldn’t really tell a difference in the girls,” Graham said. “I feel like they were a little more nervous in the past, but maybe that’s just the change of the times.”
Millbrook and Lumberton both had perfect runs through their conference schedules, and both boast scoring margins over 20 points per game against their opponents this year.
The winner gets either Southeast Raleigh or New Hanover on Saturday in Fayetteville for the East regional championship.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.