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Prep Hoops: Newton-Conover girls win 24th straight, move into 3rd round of state tourney
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Prep Hoops: Newton-Conover girls win 24th straight, move into 3rd round of state tourney

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Saddled with foul trouble, Newton-Conover’s Chyna Cornwell led a key stretch midway through the fourth quarter to lead the Red Devils to a 62-54 win over visiting West Wilkes in the second round of the NCHSAA 2A girls basketball tournament Thursday night.

The fifth-seeded Red Devils won their 24th straight game to improve to 25-4 this season and advance to the third round at East Burke (23-5) on Saturday at 6 p.m. The tournament’s fourth seed moved ahead after defeating Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference rival Bunker Hill 50-40 on Thursday. The winner of that game will face Saturday’s winner between No. 1 Mountain Heritage or No. 8 Smoky Mountain next Tuesday in the state quarterfinal for the right to play in the West final, which is scheduled for March 9 in Hickory.

The eight-point margin of victory was Newton-Conover’s smallest since a 60-54 win over Hickory in late December.

“We talked before the game,” Red Devils coach Sylvia White said. “They asked, ‘How are they, coach?’ We said, ‘There’s no bad teams left. You don’t make it to the second round of the playoffs if you are a bad team.’ So we knew they were good.”

After an early deficit, Newton-Conover did not trail again after taking the lead late in the first quarter. The Red Devils led by as many as 13 with 2:59 left in the first half and still led 35-25 after Aaliah Walton hit one of two free throws with 5:55 to go in the third quarter.

However, the No. 12 Blackhawks (19-8) used a quick transition game led by Jamilyn Wilcox (23 points) to get back into the game. The sophomore guard scored on a pair of fast break buckets, including her own rebound and end-to-end layup to cut the deficit to 35-32.

West Wilkes remained within two possessions before finally catching Newton-Conover when Kelsie Huffman hit a dribble-drive layup and later added two free throws to tie the score at 46 with 5:33 remaining.

Cornwell, who finished with 23 points and 20 rebounds, sat out during part of the West Wilkes rally after getting her fourth foul with 6:09 to play. She re-entered the game after the Blackhawks evened the score and immediately had an impact. Cornwell began the pivotal run with two free throws. On the next possession, she caught a lob pass from Tamiya Artis among a double team before turning to hit a short jumper.

“She’s a pivotal part of the game,” White said. “She got some key rebounds… Chyna being able to get back in there helped us to get on a run, but everybody around her made some good things happen too.”

Blackhawks coach Allie Greene said the inability to box out Cornwell proved to be a big part in her team’s defeat.

“They had some size on us,” Greene said. “Height wise, we had some girls just as tall, but size wise that pushed us around a little bit. We’re just going to have to get stronger.”

Back-to-back turnovers and a lane violation during a free throw hampered West Wilkes’ efforts, and the Red Devils continued to apply pressure. Grace Loftin popped in a short jumper to increase the lead to six.

Three-point shooting haunted the Blackhawks for much of the night (2-for-21 from deep) and it was crucial during a single possession in which they missed three straight open looks. At the other end, Cornwell rebounded a missed Walton free throw to cap an 8-0 run that put the Red Devils up 54-46 with 3:15 to play.

“My mindset was to try and finish the game out and to try and get this win,” Cornwell said about playing the key stretch with four fouls. “It was difficult because West Wilkes is a very good team and they’re fast and they run to the ball. “

She also mentioned an added focus on playing smart in the lane to stay in the game.

“I knew that when I got back that I had to change my game a little bit – not to put the ball down as much and keep my hands straight up so I wouldn’t get fouls called on me.”

Cornwell fouled out with 1:20, but the damage was already done. West Wilkes drew no closer than five down the stretch. Newton-Conover struggled at the free throw line (14-for-34) but hit four of six in the final 24 seconds to ice the game.

West Wilkes led by as many as five midway through the first quarter as the Blackhawk guards harassed their opponents into nine turnovers in the opening eight minutes. But a series of five turnovers in six possessions allowed Newton-Conover to catch and pass West Wilkes after Jahlea Peters drilled a three-pointer to make it 11-10.

The Red Devils pushed a 19-17 lead to 13 points in the second quarter with Cornwell and fellow post player Emma Fox combining for nine points in just over three minutes. As it has for much of the season, Newton-Conover dominated the glass with a 48-31 rebounding margin, including 18 offensive boards leading to a 15-5 advantage in second-chance points.

White said that Fox’s play inside was a factor in siphoning some of the Blackhawks’ attention away from Cornwell.

“She’s another big body,” White said of the 6-foot-3 freshman who scored 11 points and added 9 boards. “She’s as big as Chyna, but not as athletic. By her presence tonight, when they concentrated on Chyna, (Fox) made some big plays and got some big rebounds.”

The Blackhawks’ defensive pressure forced 29 turnovers, including 17 steals. West Wilkes mined only 10 points off turnovers, however, as it shot just 18-for-63 on the night.

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