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Ledford girls drop Raiders

Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch Ledford's Courtney Callicutt drives beyween North Iredell defenders and into the lane during their third-round state 2-A playoff game Friday night. (Photo by Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch)

WALLBURG | Sometimes it’s curiously ironic how the shortest players on the court often step up so large.

Ledford guards Brie Grier and Mackenzie Cranford hit six pressurized crunch-time free throws in the final two minutes as the Panthers defeated North Iredell 45-39 in the third round of the state 3-A playoffs.

Ledford, now 26-3 overall, takes on Harding in the regionals Thursday at Fleming Gymnasium on the campus of UNC Greensboro. Harding (21-4), the defending state champs, defeated Jesse Carson 48-32 to advance.

In a hard-fought game where each possession was worth its weight in net twine, North Iredell had just chipped away at a six-point deficit in the fourth period to trail the Panthers 37-36 with 1:34 left to play.

Grier, who had just been fouled, made both her free throws through the hoots and catcalls from the sizable vocal Raider crowd to push the lead to 39-36. Then Grier stepped to the line again with 52 seconds left to play and swished two more free throws to build the lead to 41-36.

North Iredell’s Mariah Johnson made one of two free throws, then Ledford’s Cranford responded with a pair of foul shots with 32 seconds left for a 43-37 lead.

“I thought we got tired in the fourth quarter,” lamented Raider coach Bradley Gabriel, whose team ended up 18-8 overall. “That probably had a lot to do with our execution down the stretch.

“Plus, Ledford hit their free throws, and that was kind of the game right there.”

Ledford coach John Ralls thought the foul shooting was critical.

“That was pretty nice, wasn’t it?” beamed Ralls. “Didn’t let them (North Iredell) get back in it and it extended the lead.”

The Panthers found the offensive going a little tougher against the pesky Raiders, and it took forward Courtney Callicutt’s slashing drives in the lane and along the baseline to keep Ledford tight with the Raiders. Callicutt, who had 16 points for the night, scored all nine of her team’s points in the second period.

“She did a nice job getting it and taking it to the basket,” said Ralls of Callicutt’s play.

“But there was some pretty good defense on both parts,” added Ralls.

Perhaps the most critical moment defensively for Ledford came as the fourth period started. The game was tied at 31-31, but the Panthers came up with three consecutive stops on defense (resulting in two Raider turnovers).

“When we got out of the zone and went man, we did a better job stopping them,” Ralls noted. “And we did a good job keeping Johnson out of the lane.”

Meanwhile, Callicutt had two baskets and Grier popped in a jumper from the paint as Ledford took a 37-31 lead.

North’s Johnson answered with a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer from the corner to cut the Panther lead to 37-36, setting up Ledford’s final two-minute surge.

Now it’s Harding again for the Panthers.

“I know that we played them last year,” said Ralls. “We were down two and had the ball with about two minutes to go. I’ll take that every time. Then we turned it over three out of the next four possessions and lost by six.”