Loftin’s heroics at the charity stripe paces Lady Red Devils to thrilling 70-68 playoff victory over fierce competitor Shelby

Lady Red Devils' junior forward Grace Loftin (33) hit the clutch free-throws to give her team the 69-68 lead with 9.2 seconds left in the game against Shelby in third-round state playoff action on Saturday, February 29. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)The Lady Red Devils overjoyed as it defeated Shelby, 70-68, to move on to the 2A West quarterfinals. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Red Devils' head coach Sylvia White hooting and cheering as her team won against the Lady Golden Lions on Saturday, February 29, at Newton-Conover High School. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Red Devils' senior center Chyna Cornwell (54) sharing an emotional moment with her head coach Sylvia White following the win. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Red Devils' senior point guard Mackenzie Johnson (22) and company cheering following the big victory over the Lady Golden Lions. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Red Devils' senior guard/forward Jahlea Peters (30) paced her team in the first quarter with seven points. She finished with five rebounds, five assists and a steal, as well. (Photo by Brian Hendrix)Shelby's Yahriea Peeler (32) attempting to box-out Lady Red Devils' star center Chyna Cornwell in playoff action on Saturday. (Photo by Brian Hendrix)Lady Red Devils' junior forward Grace Loftin (33) finished the contest with 17 points, eight rebounds and two assists. (Photo by Brian Hendrix)Shelby's Ally Hollifield (12, left) and sister Kate Hollifield (24) double-team Lady Red Devils' Chyna Cornwell (54) on Saturday inside of Lemon Gymnasium. (Photo by Brian Hendrix)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

The NCHSAA 2A West basketball third-round match-up between No. 3-seed Newton-Conover and No. 6-seed Shelby (23-2) was filled with all the makings of an instant classic: intensity, aggression and shock-factor on Saturday night at Newton-Conover High School.

As to be expected, it lived up to the hype and then some en route to the Lady Red Devils’ clutch 70-68 nail-biting victory over the Lady Golden Lions to much acclaim of the fans inside of Lemon Gymnasium.

The Lady Red Devils (27-2) faced its toughest challenge of the season since its encounter with Hickory in December in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Classic championship – which was a losing effort.

In the state playoffs, anything is possible as the home team was shell-shocked early on in the first quarter, as it trailed Shelby, 10-0. The Lady Golden Lions’ run was sparked by freshman point guard Maraja Pass – who scored six of her 24 total points in the frame.

“We knew they were going to give us everything they gave us,” said Lady Red Devils' head coach Sylvia White. “In fact, they played us this summer and beat us by like 15. So, we knew a little bit about them and we knew they were very good. We knew they played (as) hard as we play.

“They get after the ball when you put it down as hard as we do, so we knew we hadn't seen anything like that...I told our kids, 'guys it's going to be a game of runs. They're going to make a run, we have to answer. We're going to make a run and they're going to answer. Don't give up. Don't lose your composure. Don't quit when that happens'...The good thing is (it was) a 10-0 run (early in the first quarter) in our home place and our kids didn't quit.”

Shelby’s star sophomore guard Kate Hollifield and freshman guard Ally Hollifield connected on a three-pointer each in the period, as well. Ally also obtained three boards and three steals in the process.

In an interesting turn of events, this run ended following a technical foul called on the Lady Golden Lions’ head coach Scooter Lawrence for being on the court. This sent Lady Red Devils’ freshman point guard Cassidy Geddes to the line to convert the free-throw and put her squad on the board, 10-1, at the time.

Fortunately for the Lady Red Devils, senior guard/forward Jahlea Peters came out hard as she earned seven points in the first quarter – including a trio of free-throws after being fouled on the perimeter – along with a board and an assist. Due to her play, the Lady Red Devils trailed by only a point heading into the second quarter, 16-15.

Junior forward Grace Loftin impressed in the second quarter as she earned six of the Lady Red Devils' 15 points in the frame – including a pair of free-throws that began a trend for her.

The Lady Red Devils led 30-25 entering halftime, and Loftin earned eight points, three rebounds and an assist. While, her comrade in the paint senior center Chyna Cornwell dominated with 11 points, nine rebounds and a block.

The heroics of Loftin would be the story down the stretch, along with the solid play off the bench for guard Mia Powell.

As per usual this season, Newton-Conover went about seven-deep in this contest with Powell being the first sub to enter in the third quarter. Powell didn’t overextend herself and contributed nicely in the final frame as she connected on a huge pair of mid-range jumpers. She finished the contest with six points – including a pair of timely free-throws.

“The thing I can tell you is our kids never quit,” said White. “Mia Powell comes off the bench for us and hits two baskets and two free-throws. That's what it's about. That's what you got to have to win. You got to have kids like that; when it's their time, they come in and get the job done.”

The free-throw game would be the separation between both clubs, especially in the fourth quarter. Pass and Ally Hollifield were in foul trouble late, but both played exceptionally well as underclassmen.

Pass scored six points in the third quarter and seven points in the final frame but finished 1-of-7 from the charity stripe. Ally finished with nine points (all threes), along with seven rebounds, four assists and five steals.

After only scoring seven points in the first half, Ally's older sister Kate Hollifield garnered 14 points in the second half – 21 total.

It was a battle of the three-ball for Shelby – as the duo of Ally and Kate Hollifield connected on a combined seven threes – as opposed to the foul line for Newton-Conover as it converted 22-of-29.

As for the Lady Red Devils, senior point guard Aaliah Walton was the only player to knock down a three-pointer and she connected on a pair to go along with two assists.

Geddes and Peters were the leading distributors with six (a game-high) and five assists apiece. Geddes finished with four points (all at the charity stripe), seven rebounds (four offensive) and four steals. While, Peters earned seven points, five rebounds and a steal.

The Lady Red Devils weren't able to get the ball down low to Cornwell in the fourth quarter with the exception of a couple of free-throws, so Loftin and company took over. Cornwell did garner 30 points (6-of-8 from the free-throw line), 16 rebounds and a block.

On the opposing side, Pass had an opportunity to help extend the Lady Golden Lions' lead but missed three-straight free-throws down the stretch. Nevertheless, Pass was a master at getting into the deep of the defense, hitting a patented floater to give her squad the 68-67 lead.

Staying strong, though, was Loftin as she drew the foul and converted the free-throws needed to put the Lady Red Devils in the lead, 69-68, with 9.2 seconds remaining in the game. Loftin was a force at the line as she went 7-of-8. She finished the contest with 17 points, eight rebounds and two assists.

Shelby had one final opportunity to take down the Lady Red Devils in enemy territory as Pass had the ball in her hands primed for the finish. Pass was able to get into the paint once more but faltered on a runner down the middle.

Pass obtained 24 points – including a three – five rebounds, four assists and four steals in the third-round state playoff loss.

Geddes corralled the rebound and was fouled with 0.7 seconds on the clock and sealed the deal with the final free-throw to give her team the 70-68 advantage. Afterward, Shelby threw up a full-court prayer to no avail.

Following the close encounter, Newton-Conover will challenge No. 2-seed East Burke (27-3) on the road on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. In last season's third-round appearance, the Lady Red Devils fell to the Lady Cavaliers, 77-56. East Burke is playing in the 'Elite 8' once again after losing to Mountain Heritage last season.

“We love playing at home...We love this place, but it's tournament time and you got to be ready to play wherever you go,” said White about playing on the road. “The last time we measured, the goal's 10 feet at every goal we play on. So we're just excited and happy to play another game.”