By SHAWN CROWE
The 2011-2012 Cherokee High School Lady Braves are the West Region Sectional Champions for the second time in as many years. The Lady Braves (24-5) were the fourth seed in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s (NCHSAA) 1A Basketball Championship tournament that began Monday, Feb. 20.
The Lady Braves were also co-champions of the Smoky Mountain Conference for the second year in a row. They tied with the Robbinsville Lady Black Knight (21-3) after splitting their regular season matchups.
The Lady Braves began the NCHSAA Tournament at home with a game against number 13 seed Hendersonville (2-20) in which the Lady Braves behind the scoring of Alexis Maney’s 20 points, 14 of those coming from the free throw line, and the Lady Braves trademark pressing defense, out played the Lady Bearcats and with a 90-51 win moved on to round two and the Sectional Semi-Final to be played on their home court.
The Sectional Semi-Final was also held at Cherokee High and the Lady Braves hosted the North Wilkes Lady Vikings (15-10) out of the Mountain Valley Conference. The Lady Braves started a little slow but again with the pressing defense, wore down the Lady Vikings and behind leading scorer Avery Mintz’s 19 points the Lady Braves won 78-58 and the right to travel back to Robbinsville for the fourth meeting of the season against Smoky Mountain Conference foe the Lady Black Knights.
The fourth meeting between the Lady Braves and the Lady Black Knight held more implications than any of the three previous meeting this season. The winner of the Sectional Championship game would move on to the Regional Tournament in Greensboro. Just one week removed the Lady Black Knights defeated the Lady Braves in Robbinsville in the Conference Tournament Championship game 45-43 held in the Lady Knights home gymnasium. The Lady Braves were down by as much as 17 points in that game but behind the three point shooting of Jordan Thompson and a physical defense the Lady Braves fought back and had the last shot to win the game, but Alea Tisho’s jumper came up short and the Lady Black Knights took the Tournament Championship and completed an 18 game winning streak.
On Friday, Feb. 24, the Lady Braves Rolled into Robbinsville for a 7pm tipoff and the Lady Braves fans packed the gym in anticipation of another classic game in Smoky Mountain Conference Basketball history, and neither team disappointed. The Lady Braves started the game a little slow and Robbinsville jumped out to a big lead behind the hot shooting of Kadey Williams who had 22 and Amber Long who put up 12 point on the night. The Lady Black Knights hit 7 three pointers in the first half and led at the end of the first quarter 19-9.
The Lady Braves struggled at times but never lost focus and behind the play of Avery Mintz and Kendall Toineeta and a 3-2 zone defense kept the Lady Braves in the game and at half time the lead was only four points with the score 34-30 Robbinsville.
The third quarter was the story of the game as the Lady Braves came out of the locker room determined on defense and held the hot shooting Black Knights to only three points in the third quarter. Robbinsville went to a box and one defense to keep Cherokee’s three point specialist Jordan Thompson at bay, but the strategy came back to bite the Lady Knights as Kendall Toineeta and Avery Mintz took advantage of the defense and found open shots. Toineeta was deadly from the three point line as she was 3-5 from the three point line and Mintz taking control of the lane for 19 points. At the end of the third quarter the Lady Braves led 44-37.
In the fourth quarter, turnovers and missed shots were the demise of the Lady Black Knights and the Cherokee 3-2 and 1-2-2 zones were too much, and Cherokee outscored the Lady Knights 33 to 18 in the second half to win the Sectional Championship 63-52. Kendall Toineeta led all scorers with 23 points and Avery Mintz was 11 of 12 from the free throw line and the Lady Braves as a team were 18 for 20 from the charity stripe.
The Lady Braves will now travel to Greensboro on Thursday, March 1 to play the Murphy Bulldogs (14-14), another Smoky Mountain Conference foe that the Braves defeated twice in the regular season. The Regional Semi-Final game will be in Fleming Gymnasium on the campus of UNC Greensboro, game time 7pm.
When asked about this past season Lady Brave Head Coach Chris Mintz commented, “This year has been a pleasant surprise losing the group of seniors we had last year. I wasn’t sure how good we could be, but we have had several girls step up and have a real good year.”
When asked about this year’s trip to Greensboro Mintz said, “We are real excited about making a return trip to Greensboro for the regionals. Playing Murphy shows how strong our conference is, being that we have had two teams there the past two years.”
The same four teams from last year’s regional are back again this year including: 2010-11 1A State Champions Bishop McGuinness (24-5), River Mill Academy (25-3), Murphy (15-14), and Cherokee (24-5). The Lady Braves were defeated by Bishop McGuinness and Murphy lost to River Mill. This year with the tournament paring, the Smoky Mountain Conference is guaranteed a team to be in the Regional Final.