UPDATE: Hardin Park girls finish undefeated
by Jesse Campbell
The future of girls' basketball in Watauga County took center stage Thursday night for the county's middle school championship.
After muscling their way to an early advantage, the Hardin Park girls' team cruised to a 50-32 victory over Blowing Rock at Lentz-Eggers Gym at Watauga High School.
Hardin Park, the regular-season champions, ran the table with a 17-0 record. Blowing Rock, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, finished 12-5.
It is not the first time that a Tammy Dunnigan coached Hardin Park team has ever gone undefeated. But the 2013-14 edition beat every team it played by at least 11 points.
Dunnigan said the depth of the team this season sets it apart from others she's had in the past. The Eagles will return seven seventh graders from this season, next year.
"Top to bottom, this is the best team I've ever had," Dunnigan said. "In years past, we've had one or two who were outstanding players. This year, I had five seventh graders I could put in at any time. Our starters wore Blowing Rock down and we didn't lose anything bringing in the next group. Of the 13 players, we have at least 10 that would start and play for another school."
Madison Darner did the most damage by scoring 24 points for the Eagles. Darner scored several points going to the basket and from stickbacks off of the offensive glass despite facing a box-and-one defense from the Rockets.
"She's got that quick first step, which you don't see in a lot of girls," Dunnigan said. "She is one who can create her own shot. She got a couple of putbacks and she got fouled. She had several free throws."
Hardin Park jumped out to an early 9-2 lead on baskets by Darner, Allie Jones and Maddisen Robinson. Two consecutive turnovers by Blowing Rocket in the backcourt led to back-to-back scoring strikes for Hardin Park, which set the tempo early on.
Jones, a seventh grader, was quickly put into the lineup when Makenzie Robinson suffered a concussion in the first quarter and had to leave the game. The Eagles were still able to use their defensive pressure to keep the Blowing Rock ball handlers in check and prevented them from establishing any rhythm on offense.
A jumper by Darner in the final moments of the quarter extended Hardin Park's lead to 11-4. The Eagles saw its lead mushroom to double digits in the second quarter when Kaylee Cottom turn a steal into an easy layup to give Hardin Park the 17-7 lead.
At halftime, Hardin Park led 23-10.
"We had good first quarter," Dunnigan said. "Right after the half, they cut it to 10 and we went back into 1-3-1 press, and then got some easy buckets off transition. They appeared to be kind of spent. At that point we got our biggest lead and started subbing."
A silver lining in the defeat for Blowing Rock was the tenacious play of Parris Bolick, whose hard-nose style of play earned her multiple trips to the free-throw line. She finished with 14 points.
Blowing Rock also got five points from Sophie Reese and four each from Hannah Marlett and Makenzie Thompson. The Rockets reached the final game by beating Mabel 30-21 in the semifnials on Tuesday.
Hardin Park beat Green Valley 31-17 in the other semifinal, also played on Tuesday.
On Thursday, as frustration set in, fouls began to mount for Blowing Rock. Hardin Park took advantage of that and used key moments at the free-throw line to make their lead insurmountable. A jumper later in the quarter by Cailey Haas made the score 32-17.
The Eagles started the final quarter much like the first: strong and decisive. Hardin Park used a 12-0 run over the first few minutes of action in the quarter to grow the lead to as many as 24 points.
Madison Robinson and Cottom each scored eight points for Hardin Park. Jones added four for the Eagles.