Pollard girls, Horton boys crowned 2020-21 middle school basketball champions

Posted 3/24/21

MONCURE — On one side, there was excitement and relief from finishing the inevitable.

On the other, pure joy from finally getting over the hump.

The Chatham County Middle School Basketball …

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Pollard girls, Horton boys crowned 2020-21 middle school basketball champions

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Posted

MONCURE — On one side, there was excitement and relief from finishing the inevitable.

On the other, pure joy from finally getting over the hump.

The Chatham County Middle School Basketball Tournament concluded on Saturday morning at Moncure Elementary School. The finals took place a day later than scheduled after the boys’ semifinals were postponed due to inclement weather on Thursday.

The Margaret B. Pollard Mustangs were crowned the girls champions after a comfortable victory over the Horton Wildcats, 50-40, earning them their fifth straight championship trophy.

The Wildcats, however, were crowned the boys champions after a nail-biting win over the J.S. Waters Cubs, 51-46, that featured plenty of heart-pounding moments, resulting in the Wildcats’ first-ever middle school boys basketball title.

The championship games — one a blowout, the other a barnburner — could not have been more different. A fitting tribute to the stark difference between the championship history of the Pollard girls and Horton boys.

The dynasty reigns

Historically speaking, Pollard fits somewhere between Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners football team (47 straight wins from 1953-57) and John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team (88 straight wins from 1971-75).

Few programs are as dominant at their sport as the Pollard girls are at theirs.

After their 50-40 title game win over rival Horton on Saturday, the Mustangs claimed their fifth straight Chatham County championship, but in an even more impressive feat, they also completed their fifth straight undefeated season, finishing 9-0.

Over the last five years, they have a combined 77-0 record.

A local dynasty.

“We believe in building a program,” said Pollard Head Coach Harold Baldwin. “That’s what we started out doing, just building a program so we can win every year.”

Saturday’s game was just another piece of evidence to prove how successful that program is.

At the start of the third quarter, the Mustangs found themselves leading by just three in a close contest.

Six minutes later, Pollard was in full control, cruising to another championship.

Horton scored the first two buckets of the third period, including one in the paint by Sheylah Glover to give the Wildcats a 25-24 lead. From there, however, it would be all downhill for Horton as Pollard’s core players began to heat up.

A trio of Mustangs — Sidney Ballard, Gabby White and Natalia Whitaker — were excellent for Pollard all day, but at no point better than they were as soon as Horton took the lead.

Ballard scored immediately after to put her team back up by one, followed by a Horton turnover and a White jumper from the free-throw line to make it 28-25. A few moments later, White stole the ball, sped past everyone into the lane and drew contact on an and-one layup. She missed the free throw, but Ballard scored on a putback on the offensive rebound. In the blink of an eye, the Mustangs led 32-25.

White’s knack for finding the ball on defense, along with her confidence and speed, made her dangerous for the Wildcats. If she saw the opportunity and a hole in the lane, she would shoot the gap as quickly as she could and gracefully lay it in.

Ballard, on the other hand, made a name for herself in the trenches. Standing at 6-foot-2, she had three blocks in the third quarter alone and refused to allow anything positive to happen in the paint for Horton. Her ability to rebound — especially on the offensive end — was crucial to the Mustangs’ success down the stretch.

By the end of the third quarter, Pollard had a 44-27 lead, outscoring Horton 20-6 in the period.

Baldwin credits the explosive quarter to a halftime switch in the team’s defense.

“We went from zone to man-to-man because they were hitting some outside shots, I can give them that,” said Baldwin. “They can shoot. (Horton head coach Wanda Blair’s) got an excellent team. But we switched from zone to man and once we did that, we turned the pressure up, that’s what did it. That’s why we ended up blowing it out in the third quarter, we had to change some stuff.”

In the fourth, Whitaker — a quick, tenacious ballhandler — came out shining, scoring a layup, getting a steal and hitting a jumper to open up the quarter.

However, it was one of the last plays the starters would be in the game that truly showed Pollard’s talent, skill and dominance.

As Horton brought the ball up the court, White stole the ball and knocked it toward the right corner of the Wildcats’ goal. As the ball was sailing out of bounds, White jumped toward the sideline, grabbed the ball and threw it with one hand halfway down the court, where Whitaker was running in stride. She took the ball on a fast break and laid it in.

White’s vision — finding Whitaker down the court — and Whitaker’s basketball intelligence (knowing to look for the pass) were on full display there, putting the Mustangs up 50-27 and sealing the deal.

Shortly after, Baldwin took out his starters and put in his bench with around three minutes left in the game, leading to the 13-point fourth-quarter surge by Horton that featured a few inbound steals and easy buckets. But it was much too late.

White led the team in scoring with 18 points, followed by Whitaker with 16 points and Ballard with 14 points. As a trio, they scored 48 of the team’s 50 points on the day.

For Horton, Neah Henry led the Wildcats with 15 points.

That third quarter solidified the Pollard girls as the Chatham champions, a title they’ve protected for most of the last decade. Even in a sports year impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Mustangs’ success in women’s basketball remains constant.

“It’s come from hard work from day one,” said Baldwin. “You’ve got to buy into the system, you’ve got to buy into our system. Once you buy into our system and everybody turns around and works hard and puts in team effort, that’s what does it. … When they learn that system that I’m teaching, that’s when we’re able to win these games. And I hope we keep winning.”

First time for everything

The first one is always the sweetest.

A fist pump. A look to the sky with arms spread wide. A pair of hands covering his face.

The emotions were visible on the face of Horton boys basketball head coach Kenneth Scurlock from the moment the final buzzer sounded and the results became official on Saturday.

Excitement. Relief.

At last, his Wildcats are the Chatham County champions.

“We’ve been here six times and this is the first one I’ve won today,” said Scurlock. “I had a little AAU program and these guys had been with me a while from that. They’ve sort of just been grooming together, working for this day and it finally happened.”

The win over the J.S. Waters Cubs capped off an undefeated (8-0) season for the Wildcats, ending with the championship trophy.

While the game never truly felt in doubt for Horton, it probably should have.

After leading by as many as nine in the first half, the Wildcats found themselves down by one with less than a minute left in the third quarter, the Cubs’ first lead.

Just before the buzzer sounded, however, Horton’s Chad Graves, who scored 11 points for the Wildcats on Saturday, got a put-back attempt to go off of an offensive rebound, reclaiming a 36-35 lead at the end of the third.

The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth period between the two teams, scoring one after the other as Horton fought to fend off J.S. Waters.

With the game tied at 38 and a little over four minutes to play, Horton’s Antoine Brewington drilled a right corner three-pointer to put his team up 41-38 and seemingly give them the breathing room they needed.

But soon after, J.S. Waters’ Luke Gaines hit a baseline jumper in transition to put the Cubs within one.

Gaines and Reid Albright continually posed problems for Horton throughout the game. Gaines, a smaller guard, was essentially the Cubs’ version of Horton’s Hayes Burleson. Both can shoot extremely well and, even if they’re missing shots, they aren’t afraid to keep shooting until they get back on track.

Albright, the Cubs’ leading scorer on the day with 19 points, is a bigger and versatile forward, getting it done from both close and long range.

Despite the challenges those players created, the Wildcats always seemed to have an answer when J.S. Waters came close to taking the lead.

Graves might make a great effort for a bucket in the paint. Isaiah Blair might drive into the lane for a score. Burleson might knock down a shot from outside.

Time and time again, Horton would get close to losing its lead, then someone would immediately provide a spark, reignite the team and allow them to pull away again.

“We practice (close-game scenarios),” said Scurlock. “I try to put them in game-like situations before we get to the game, that way when it happens, you don’t panic.”

With 29.4 seconds left in the game, J.S. Waters’ Aiden Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back up, scoring to cut the deficit to one, 47-46.

But both Burleson and Blair, with ice in their veins, knocked down pairs of free throws to lock-in the 51-46 victory and the school’s first-ever Chatham County boys basketball championship.

It took six title game appearances, but the Wildcats finally made it over the mountain that’s stood in their way for years.

“They trusted each other,” said Scurlock. “They believed in each other and they felt like if they worked together, they could do it.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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