Eastern Alamance’s women’s basketball team picked up its fifth straight win Friday night with a huge 56-44 road win at Western Alamance. Aside of beating their arch rivals, the win was important for the Eagles in that it placed EAHS in a first place tie in the Mid-State Conference standings.
Western entered the game with a perfect 5-0 mark in conference play, and Eastern’s defensive intensity and poise down the stretch secured what is now a three-way tie atop the league standings, with the Eagles joining the Warriors and Northern Guilford.
“Right now, that sits us in front with Western and Northern (Guilford), who we have the tiebreaker on both. That’s a good spot to be in. Now we’ve got to see what we do with it,” Eastern head coach Tim Krotish said shortly after the Eagles moved to 10-3 overall, and 5-1 in conference play. “I’m very pleased with our effort. Obviously tickled that the kids came out on the road, in front of a big crowd, and kept their composure and did what we had to do down the stretch, which was run out the clock and hit our free throws.”
The Eagles showed Western early on that they had come to Elon ready for a battle, racing out to a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes. Eastern held a slim lead for most of the first half and were out in front 28-23 late in the second quarter before a Western 3-pointer cut the EAHS lead to 28-26 at halftime.
Eastern had startled Western in the first half with its defensive quickness and ball movement, and the Eagles stuck to the plan early in the third quarter. After Laila Anderson set up Hali Watlkins for a layin with a brilliant pass through the middle, Anderson made a nice crossover to get open and drained a 3-pointer for a 33-28 lead at the 5:20 mark of the third period.
Watkins came up big for the Eagles in the third, scoring on a nice drive and layin for a 37-31 EAHS advantage, and then drawing a foul and making a free throw to give Eastern a 38-31 lead in the final three minutes of the period. As the quarter wound down, Anderson came up with a steal and scored while getting fouled. Her 3-point play gave EAHS a brief 10-point lead - 43-33 - but Western closed within seven points, 43-36, heading into the final period.
Although the Warriors briefly got within five early in the fourth quarter, Anderson came through with a left-handed floater at the 6:40 mark, and senior Makenzy Tucker came through with a jumper with 5:10 to go, which made the score 47-39. Moments later, Watkins got a steal and was fouled attempting a coast-to-coast layup. Watkins’ two free throws regained a 10-point margin for EAHS heading into the final five minutes. Western never got any closer than eight points the rest of the way.
“Obviously, we’re pretty pleased. I think the kids played hard,” Krotish said. “Played hard in the first half, but we had a lot of defensive breakdowns. Stuff that we’d worked on all week not to do, we did. We talked at halftime about fixing those issues. I thought in the second half we played really well defensively.”
As the clock ticked down, Eastern was fouled repeatedly. Watkins made the first of two shots at 3:18, which made the count 51-42, and then again made the first and missed the second at 3:02. Anderson made a pair of free throws at the 1:52 mark to keep the lead at 10, and then Evans sank a pair at 1:33 for a 56-44 lead and what turned out to be the game’s final points.
Anderson led three Eagles in double figures in scoring with 18 points, while Evans added 14 points and Watkins 11 points. The trio came through crucial spots, with Evans producing most of her points during Eastern’s early rally, and Watkins coming through during Eastern’s third quarter surge.
For an EAHS squad that lost two of its three games in highly disappointing fashion, blowing leads late in losses to conference rival Person and local foe Williams in its Holiday Hoopla Tournament, this is a clear sign that Krotish’s young squad, loaded with tenth graders, is taking another collective step together.
“It shows growth. One of the things you’ve got to be aware of is we’re starting four sophomores. They’re young. We’re going to go through some growing pains. And we’re not done. We’ll go through some more,” Krotish said. “But after losing those games against Person and Williams by giving up leads and not hitting free throws and turning the ball over, to keep our composure - I think we only had three turnovers in the second half, and Laila (Anderson) and Amiyah Evans hit all their free throws down the stretch - that’s how you put games away. It’s a big step forward.”
“We’ve been talking about playing the ‘big girl’ games. We can’t make our living on teams that everybody else has beaten, too. If we’re going to be a good team, we have to compete against the big teams,” Krotish continued.
“We lost our first two ‘big girl’ games - three, really (including the loss to The Burlington School). Two of them, we gave away. Then we turned the tables at Northern Guilford and got one. We had this one (against the Warriors) asterisked. We hadn’t beaten Western in four years. Every loss has been by a basket - heartbreaking. Last year they took the conference championship from us in the last week, because we came down here and choked on a defensive possession at the end of the game, let them have an open shot. We wound up in second instead of first.”
Although Friday night’s win is a significant leap for the Eagles in their hopes of returning to the top of the MId-State Conference for the first time since the 2015-16 squad that reached the NCHSAA 3A East Regional championship game, Krotish knows the team still has many hurdles left in front of them, starting Tuesday night back in Mebane against McMichael. The Phoenix - the last conference opponent the Eagles haven’t yet played - come to Tal Jobe Gymnasium with a 9-4 overall record, and a 3-3 mark in league play.
“My last message to them (in the locker room following the Western win) was nobody gets crowned champion after the first cycle. On January 17, they’re not the champion yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Enjoy it, and then get back to work Monday,” Krotish said.