When the Northwest Guilford girls basketball team needed to get some stops in last Saturday's 4-A Western Regional championship against Mallard Creek, they came in waves.
And when the Vikings needed to create a little breathing room at the free throw line to pad their lead, they made that happen as well.
That formula led Northwest to a 61-50 win at Fleming Gym on the campus of UNC Greensboro last Saturday, sending the Vikings to the NCHSAA 4-A title game for the third straight season.
Northwest (28-2) will face unbeaten Southeast Raleigh (30-0) at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill at 5:05 p.m. in a rematch of last season's championship game, a 36-34 win by the Vikings.
Two years ago at the Smith Center, Northwest had one hand on the championship trophy against Millbrook before an offensive rebound after a missed free throw and a put back as time expired sent the Vikings to a devastating 46-45 loss.
Northwest had big performances in the regional final from Elizabeth Kitley (22 points, 13 rebounds, three blocked shots), Reagan Kargo (15 points), Lindsay Gauldin (12 points, eight rebounds, three assists) and Cayla King (eight points, three blocked shots) and made 28 of 32 free throws, including nine of 12 in the fourth quarter.
"The two constants for us have been free-throw shooting and defense," Coach Darlene Joyner said. "We've had some off-nights, but they've consistently done a really good job from the free throw line."
Trailing 46-44 heading into the fourth quarter, Northwest used a 9-2 run to take command, fueled by six straight points by Kitley after offensive rebounds and the dribble penetration of Lindsay Gauldin, who navigated her way around two defenders running at her once she crossed half-court.
"I think another key for us was Lindsay's penetration," Joyner said. "That's something we haven't really done this season. And with their extended press, it was shouldering this team and determining that she wasn't going to lose tonight. Her driving opened things up and Liz's offensive rebounds were a big turning point for us."
Northwest held Mallard Creek to two points - both coming on free throws - in the final 5:15 as it pulled away.
"We knew we needed to make stops to win," said Bria Gibbs, a senior forward who finished with four points and four rebounds. "That's our bread and butter, our defense."
King had two key blocked shots in the fourth quarter, the second one coming with 3:09 left when she got her hand on a driving layup attempt by Ahlana Smith and kept control of the ball before falling out of bounds.
That defense will need to be clicking again on Saturday against Southeast Raleigh. Northwest hung on to the win last season at Reynolds Coliseum at N.C. State when a last second shot by Southeast came up short.
"Every team is a little older and every team is a little better," Joyner said. "That's been our road during the playoffs and Saturday won't be any different."