For the third time in as many years, the Northern Guilford girls basketball team will play for the NCHSAA 3-A state championship.
This year, the Nighthawks will head to Reynolds Coliseum on the campus of N.C. State to square off against Jacksonville (23-3) on Saturday at 5:05 p.m. in the title game to defend their state championship from last season.
Northern (27-4) advanced with a 51-43 win against previously unbeaten Gastonia Ashbrook (30-1) last Saturday in the Western Regional Championship at Fleming Gym on the campus of UNC Greensboro.
It was a special moment for Coach Kim Furlough to win on the floor named in honor of one of her mentors, former UNCG women's coach Lynne Agee. Furlough was an assistant on Agee's staff for several years and visited one of the two spots on the floor bearing Agee's name after her team concluded pre-game warm-ups.
"It was so much fun for us to play here because we've been (in the) East (Regionals) for so long," Furlough said. "We knew that the West Regionals were going to be at UNCG, so that was one of our goals. It was fun to be back on that sideline. I love Coach Agee. She taught me so much and I respect her tremendously. Just to be playing on her court... that was my little sign to her."
The Nighthawks did the rest of the work, pulling away from Ashbrook with a 10-1 run in the third quarter while holding it scoreless over the final 5:44.
Northern led 35-24 heading into the fourth and salted the game away by making 16 of 21 free throws - the only points the Nighthawks scored in the fourth - and by keeping possession of the ball.
Mercedes Wampler led Northern with 16 points, while Kassie Robakiewicz and Elissa Cunane added 11 apiece.
Furlough can now turn her full attention to Jacksonville; she admitted after Saturday's regional win that she had a scout at Jacksonville's East Regional championship game.
"I saw them (Jacksonville) over Christmas, too," Furlough said. "They're big, they're fast, and they're good."
Cunane, Robakiewicz and Wampler - the three seniors on the team - will have one more game to close out their high school careers. A second straight state title would be the perfect way for them to go out.
"We're so excited because we know the group of girls we have, we can really do this," Cunane said.
"There would be no better way to end the season or our careers," Robakiewicz said. "I'm so excited."
"Our goal was to get back to the championship game," Wampler said. "Now we have to go out there and play like it."
Furlough said she is proud of her team and knows they will be ready on Saturday for another taste of a state title.
"We're just trying to take it in," Furlough said. "Being our third year, this is crazy. We're overjoyed for the kids."