Loftin sparks Lady Red Devils to dominating second-round playoff win over Bandys on Thursday night

Lady Trojans' sophomore guard Bailey Reynolds (11) attempts the box-out on Lady Red Devils' junior forward Grace Loftin (33) on Thursday night. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Red Devils' senior center Chyna Cornwell (54) going for one of her 7 blocks at the expense of Bandys' forward Laci Paul (15) on Thursday, February 27. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Red Devils' senior guard/forward Jahlea Peters (30) attempting the cross-court pass against Bandys' Cailyn Huggins (23) on Thursday. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Trojans' senior guard Toni Laney (21) collected a team-high 12 points in the 71-28 loss against Newton-Conover on Thursday, February 27. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Trojans' sophomore forward Logan Dutka (43) obtaining a big block on Lady Red Devils' star center Chyna Cornwell (54) in the second round playoff loss on Thursday. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Red Devils' junior forward Grace Loftin (33) attempts to go after Bandys' sophomore Logan Dutka (43) while shooting on Thursday, February 27. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Trojans' junior forward Cailyn Huggins (23) attempting to back down Lady Red Devils' center Chyna Cornwell on Thursday night. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)Lady Red Devils' junior forward Nalece Duncan (34) attempting to keep the ball away from Bandys' sophomore guard Caroline McIntosh (22) in second-round playoff action on Thursday. (Photo by Michelle Thompson)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

The name of the game is to survive and advance when it comes to high school basketball playoffs.

The No. 3-seeded Newton-Conover Lady Red Devils (26-2) did that and then some on Thursday night in front of an electric home-crowd atmosphere as it defeated rival No. 14 Bandys, 71-28.

Lady Red Devils' junior forward Grace Loftin was the spark that ignited the flame from the jump. Loftin demonstrated great determination and grit to get her team ahead in the opening quarter as she amassed 13 of her squad's 20 first-quarter points.

“We've talked all year long about (how) Grace really made a difference in our team,” said Lady Red Devils' head coach Sylvia White about Loftin's activity. “I mean Chyna Cornwell's great; when people get all over her and double her, we have to have somebody to counter, somebody that makes it an equalizer. So Grace stepping up, becoming more and more of an offensive (part) and more and more of a rebounder really makes it hard. Double team Chyna, we'll go to Grace.”

Heading into the second quarter, Newton-Conover maintained a 20-10 lead over Bandys. However, in the first period, it was Lady Trojans' sophomore forward Logan Dutka looking to continue where she left off on Tuesday night as she connected on a pair of threes to keep it as close as she could early.

Also, in the fold for Bandys was senior guard Toni Laney. Laney and Dutka finished as the team's leading scorers in the first half with six points apiece.

The lack of help for the pair offensively led to a growing lead for the Lady Red Devils as senior center Chyna Cornwell began to pick up her game on the offensive end. By the end of the second period, Cornwell garnered 11 points, 12 rebounds (6 offensive), along with five big blocks and a steal.

Lady Red Devils' senior guard/forward Jahlea Peters also contributed on the offensive end as Loftin was a little quiet. Peters earned six of her eight total points in the second quarter – including a 3-for-3 clip from the charity stripe. Newton-Conover held a 36-14 lead heading into the break.

Coming out of halftime, Loftin continued her spark as she aided in the Lady Red Devils' 19-11 third-quarter run. Although she only scored two points in the frame, she was a prominent figure on the glass and on defense. Loftin earned four of her eight total rebounds in the third quarter (two offensive), as well as a steal (two overall).

Loftin finished the contest with 24 points – including a pair of threes. Cornwell continued to do what she does as she finished with a game-high 25 points, 21 rebounds (13 offensive), along with seven blocks and two steals. Cornwell would hit four-straight free-throws in the second half after only connecting on 1-of-5 in the first half; while, Loftin connected on 4-of-7.

Due to its inability to find great scoring opportunities because of the stifling defense of the Lady Red Devils in the passing lanes, Bandys fell harshly in this one.

“We know that defense sets the tone,” said White about her team's ability to clog the passing lanes. “We know that if it's hard to score (and) we get some steals, we're going to be better off. We're going to run the floor with you. We're going to take some opportunities away from you.

“We work hard on defense every day. One thing we do every single day is on the defense. Deny the pass, jump to the pass, deny the cutter, close out...It's 50 practices again and we're still breaking it down, working on defense. We can always get better on defense. Nobody likes to play a team that's harder to make a pass with. It makes it harder (for them) to run the offense.”

However, the scoreboard may tell most of the story but not all of it. The heart of the Lady Trojans was present throughout, especially in Laney as it would ultimately be her final high school game.

Laney helped rally the troops in the second half en route to a double-digit performance as she obtained a team-high 12 points, three rebounds and two steals. Dutka also demonstrated her growth from a season ago and gobs of potential to have an even better year going into next season. Dutka even got a solid block on Cornwell – she had two total – to go along with eight points, eight boards and a steal.

Although she scored only two points, Lady Trojans' junior forward Laci Paul worked hard on the boards and corralled five (three offensive), as well as an assist and a steal in the losing effort.

Even in defeat, the season wasn't all a loss for the Lady Trojans as it improved by leaps and bounds from a season ago. It finished the 2019-20 campaign at 20-7 overall and 11-3 in the South Fork 2A Conference – second place in the conference standings – along with a second-round appearance in the state playoffs after losing in the first round last season.

As for Newton-Conover, it received great frontcourt play but also solid backcourt play from senior Aaliah Walton and freshman Cassidy Geddes. Walton collected seven points – including a pair of threes – two rebounds, four assists and two steals. While, Geddes earned four points, a board, a game-high six assists, one block and a game-high five steals.

Next up for the Lady Red Devils is a third-round match-up with No. 3-seed Shelby (23-1) on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Newton-Conover High School.

“Every game gets harder,” said White on trying to sustain this success on Saturday. “Every week gets a little tougher. Every game gets a little tougher. We just try to stay focused and we say, 'it's a one game season.' We want to win that season.

“We saw some things (against Bandys) in the fourth quarter that we've been trying to perfect. The rotation with our post players, learn how to kick it in and out, give-and-go and move and we felt like we ran truly for the first time (in this game.)”

Its contest against the Lady Golden Lions will be its first third-round appearance in the 2A West state playoffs since the 2015-16 season. The Lady Red Devils are also on an 18-game win streak heading into Saturday.