The Lady Pirates (6-3) will use this weekend’s inaugural Woodmen of the World Christmas tournament at West Bladen High to work on minor inconsistencies in their pressure defense while trying to become more efficient at the offensive end. Non-conference games against St. Pauls and Fairmont — county rivals Lumberton has already handled by an average of 26.3 points in the early going — loom as remaining tuneups prior to the SEC opener on Jan. 11 at Pinecrest.
Graham’s squad has won 11 out of 20 conference games over the last two seasons. Lumberton’s last league title came in 2009 after a 9-1 finish.
“This tournament gives us another chance to play and work on some things before the new year begins,” Graham said before Thursday’s practice. “We rarely have the opportunity of playing in two Christmas tournaments. We’re using it as a way to get better. The question remains how well will we play after the holiday layoff.”
Thirteen days have passed since Lumberton captured the Robeson County Shootout title at UNCP, a 59-47 win in the final over West Bladen that capped a three-game win streak. The Lady Pirates, playing their fourth game in five days, jumped on the Knights early and were able to withstand a second half rally with an attention to defense and rebounding.
Lumberton would meet West Bladen (7-2) in Saturday’s 4 p.m. championship game should both teams win in today’s opening round. The Lady Pirates take on Whiteville (6-5) at 2 p.m. while the Knights host Clinton (8-1) after that.
“Defense is the strength of our team along with our running game,” Graham said. “We’re not as good as we’d like to be in the halfcourt, that’s what we’re working on. I’ve been real pleased with the way we’ve come out so far, but we’ve got to cut down on turnovers and do a better job on offense.”
Azaya Graham’s recent spark at point guard has paved the way for Keanna McNeill’s expertise in the post. Graham, a natural shooting guard, moved to the No. 1 spot in November when Lumberton lost starter Destiny McKoy to an ACL injury. Graham is one of the county’s leading 3-point shooters and averages just over four assists per game.
“We’ve got to play Azaya a little out of position, but she’s done a great job,” Graham said. “We’ve got no other choice with Destiny out since Azaya’s one of our best ball-handlers.”
Lumberton faces Shootout rematch on boys side
Lumberton’s boys are also participating and will try and avenge a previous Shootout final loss to West Bladen at 8 tonight in the second first-round contest. New Bern battles Whiteville at 6.
In West Bladen’s first-ever Shootout appearance, coach Travis Pait’s unit survived at the buzzer against Purnell Swett, slipped by St. Pauls and executed to near perfection down the stretch in the championship game against the Pirates.
“We are very excited to host this wonderful event,” Pait said. “We thought it would great to have a local tournament. The field is second to none with several intriguing matchups. The girls’ tournament is going to be unreal. All four teams are considered to be the best in their respective leagues. On the boys side, it will be a battle of big schools versus small schools. With seven of the eight teams being local, we are expecting huge crowds.”
The Pirates (3-6) are still searching for continuity before SEC play under coach Mackie Register. Lumberton has looked flawless in stretches, but offensive execution and rebounding struggles have led to five losses by double digits. A brutally challenging schedule has certainly had an effect.
“Our legs kind of went out in the Shootout final the first time we played West Blaen,” Register said. “They made some tough shots, but our transition defense was lacking because we had played so many games in a short amount of time. It’s pretty neat to get a rematch this soon because usually you have to think about about a loss for a long time.
Register said the Pirates had two jumpshot-heavy practices on Wednesday and Thursday in preparation for this weekend. Lumberton’s shooting percentage as a team isn’t where it needs heading into the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule heading into 2013 according to Register.
“We’re getting better, but we haven’t had a lot of shots fall,” he said. “The good news is we’ve got guys capable of hitting shots.”
The boys’ third-place game is scheduled for Saturday at 6. The final will tip-off 15 minutes after that contest is over. Admission is $5 and all profits will benefit each of the participating schools.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to get on a roll,” Register said. “It’s nice to not go stagnant during Christmas break. If we can win two games and improve in some areas, it would really help our team.”
Reach Staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at email@example.com