Storm a-brewin’: The building of the 2015 Hickory girls basketball state championship team
(With sports on hiatus in the area, I’m going to relive some of my favorite memories from my 12 years of covering sports in the region. My thinking is it will be a mix of high school and Crawdads, depending on what strikes me. I have no agenda for one team or one sport over another. Some days it might be just Crawdads stats. It may be sporadic, or daily, I don’t know. However, for right now, this is my therapy for what is going on, for I have no sports to write about.)
Saturday, March 14, 2020 was the fifth anniversary of Hickory’s 3A girls’ basketball championship game against Chapel Hill, won by the Red Tornadoes 71-53. Following that team over a few years, it was fascinating to watch the building of that team and a season prior to the title, I could see that Hickory had a chance to be a championship team. These are my memories of that squad.
One of the first high school basketball games I covered for the Hickory Daily Record during the 2013-2014 season was Newton-Conover at Hickory. The girls’ game of that doubleheader was an 87-24 rout by Hickory – this before the running-clock era started for the 2015-2016 season.
We featured the boys game for our coverage, but there was an intriguing development from the girls’ contest that got my attention. In fact, I emailed then-sports editor Chris Hobbs with my thoughts from the night. The email included the following statement:
“Hickory girls look as usual but having Sadasia Tipps come over from Foard to play inside gives them, at least early on, a chance to make a deeper run this year. If they stay healthy, it could be a special next two years.”
Led by coach Barbara Helms, for many years the Red Tornadoes girls’ teams were the dominant program in the area. Hickory won a slew of conference titles and often made deep runs in the state playoffs, which included an appearance at the 3A state final in 2011.
The trademark of Helms’ teams is a defense that has the effect of gnats on humans on a hot summer day in South Georgia. It often had the effect of being an irritating, bothersome, get up in your face and in your eyes and nose nuisance that harassed opponents into turnovers before getting to the front court. The steals often led to the appearance of a pregame layup line. However, if a team could match up athletically with Hickory, they could be beat in a halfcourt game, especially if the opponent had size inside.
Following the 2011 state final loss, Hickory had the luxury of two talented freshmen to join the team and they would be the foundation for the next four seasons. Forward Danasia Witherspoon and guard Yazmen Hannah had basketball skills and maturity beyond their years. Witherspoon, who signed to play in college at Wingate, was a 5-foot-8, Swiss-army knife of a forward that could do about anything on the court. She could post up in the lane, drive to the basket, shoot a three, if needed – truly a talented high school player. Hannah, who went to Virginia St., was a more slender 5-8 with quick hands on defense that were the envy of any pickpocket. Along with a slashing dribble-drive, Hannah scored a ton of points off backcourt steals that turned into an automatic left-handed layup. She was also coldblooded around the arc, especially on the left side.
With future Lenoir-Rhyne Univ. player Farrah Young, a firecracker of a point guard who ran the floor for the team from 2011 to 2013, Hickory nearly made it back to the 2012 title game. However, an ACL knee injury suffered by Witherspoon in the regional semifinal loomed large and Hickory got a taste its own medicine with 29 forced turnovers in a 78-46 rout by Harding in the 3A West Regional.
A year later in the playoffs, Tuscola’s Shelby Tricoli handled the Hickory pressure at the point and went on to score 19. Teammate Alex Swanger matched her point total and added 12 boards, as the Mountaineers knocked off Hickory at home in the third round.
Enter Sadasia Tipps.
Listed at 6-1, the lean, long-armed mobile Tipps, who went on to play college ball at East Tennessee, was a shot-swatting machine in the paint, averaging 3.7 blocks-per-game (stats from MaxPreps) with Fred T. Foard during the 2012-2013 season, during which the Tigers won a Northwestern 3A-4A Conference co-championship. Her quickness and long limbs allowed her on defense to go anywhere along the baseline from the post to the corner and harass shots.
Tipps transferred to Hickory for her final two years and immediately she paid dividends for the Red Tornadoes in the season-opening rout of Newton-Conover. She scored 10 points, had 2 blocks, 5 steals and 3 boards. With her in the middle, teams that could beat the Hickory press now had another defensive weapon with which to contend.
Now juniors, Witherspoon averaged 17.3 points per game and Hannah had 16.2, but as Tipps continued to adjust to Helms’ style of play and her Red Tornado teammates, Hickory was nearly unbeatable, often with jaw-dropping victory margins. The average score of that 30-game season in 2013-14 was 70-39, which included playoff wins by 45, 26, 15 and 19 in the first four rounds. Only two opponents came within single-digits, one of those in the 3A West final, when Hickory defeated Pisgah 66-57. Tipps had 12 games that season with ten or more rebounds, and in the playoffs, she had two games with seven or more blocks. Her shining moment came against Erwin, when she 15 points, 15 boards and seven blocks. Yet, the dream of an unbeaten 30-0 season evaporated quickly in the state final, when Chapel Hill led by 22 at the half and won by 13.
However, Hickory was still building and it added the final piece of a championship puzzle – junior Ansley Rooks, a transfer from Patton. A talented volleyball player, who signed to play the sport at UNC Asheville, Rooks was a 5-9 forward that could find a hot hand around the 3-point arc, or give help to Witherspoon and Tipps inside. Joining the other three seniors, together the Red Tornadoes were even more lethal on the court.
Offensively, Hickory was about the same as the 2013-14 edition, scoring just over 70 points a game. Defensively, it was at another level that I can’t recall seeing from any other team. Out of 27 games, Hickory allowed less than 30 points in 17 of them, and less than 20 in ten. For the season, the Red Tornadoes allowed 28 points per game. No opponent reached the 60s.
The crowning achievement of that season came in the 3A West final against Weddington, which was led by McDonald’s All-American Stephanie Watts. According to her bio page on the University of North Carolina women’s basketball site, Watts was ranked 24th in her class by ESPN and 14th by All Star Girls Report. Named the 2015 North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year (29.1 points per game, 8.8 rebound, 6.1 assists), Watts scored 39, including a regional-record (“regionals” then included the state quarterfinals and semis at a neutral site) 27 points in the second half and rallied the Warriors from 15 down to defeat Freedom.
Jordan Anders, a writer for HDR who covered Hickory in the regionals, caught up with Helms and asked about defending Watts.
“I saw Barbara as we were walking out of (Winston-Salem’s Lawrence) Joel (Coliseum),” Anders recalled. “And said something to the effect of ‘you guys have a plan to stop that tomorrow?’
“And she looked me in the eyes, into the depths of my soul, and said ‘yeah’ in a tone that sounded almost offended that I would ask such a question.”
The 3A West final was not so much a rout as it was an overwhelming massacre of a good Weddington team that was 29-1 (the only loss prior was to 4A champion Myers Park 76-55) coming into the game and averaged 62 points a game. Hannah and Rooks were hot from behind the arc early to push Hickory into an 14-2 lead. It was 20-6 after one quarter before it got worse.
Player after player– double and triple teams – came after Watts on defense and forced 11 turnovers in the second quarter, during which Watts picked up her third foul. At the point, Hickory could name its score. More exactly, the Red Tornadoes could name Weddington’s score. Hickory led 34-9 at the half and THEN, the defense got tougher. The Warriors scored just four points TOTAL in the second half and ended the game with 5-of-40 shooting. Hannah had 31 to lead Hickory.
However, coach Helms knew the work wasn’t done yet.
“I told them, ‘You have to be elated,’” she said in a postgame presser. “I thought they were tremendous in this game, but now, (be) elated, excited, but now it’s back to work.”
Hickory returned to the finals for a rematch against Chapel Hill ine what was essentially a road game at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carmichael Area. Falling behind at the end of one quarter, the Red Tornadoes amped up the defense to the tune of 23 turnovers for the game that led to 33 points. Witherspoon scored 20 and had seven steals to win the MVP, but it was Tipps’ 20 rebounds – 10 offensive – that had the biggest impact.
“They just dominated the boards,” Chapel Hill coach Sherry Norris said in the postgame press conference. “Tipps had 20 rebounds and we had 30 as a team. We’ve not played any other team this year that beat us that badly on the boards.”
Hickory held a 44-30 rebound margin which led to a 15-8 edge in second-chance points. With all the turnovers and rebounds, the Red Tornadoes outscored Chapel Hill 36-18 in the paint en route to the win.
Essentially, the Red Tornadoes were one bad half of basketball away from two state titles in a row. For me, they were the best girls’ team I saw in the 2010s with the game against Weddington the most stunning contest in that sport I’ve seen.