NOTE: The following story originally appeared in the March 13, 2016 edition.
For the fifth time overall and first time at the 3A classification, Freedom is the NCHSAA state champion of girls basketball.
The program won the 1989, 1994, 1995 and 2002 titles in 4A.
And while it's not fair to compare any of the previous teams' runs to this one or to one another, Saturday's finals win in 53-50 fashion over No. 12 Northern Guilford (25-8) at UNC's Carmichael Arena capped a postseason run and really, a season-long run of more sheer Lady Patriots' dominance that ever before witnessed.
No. 1 Freedom (32-0) had an average margin of victory of 30.7 points in six playoff games and nearly 36 points for the season. They won every game except two by more than 16 points, were ranked atop the polls all season and won 17 games by mercy rule (40 points or more).
This year's group of Lady Patriots broke the '94 team's average playoff margin of victory record (26.4 in five games).
And they broke the will of anyone who stood in the way, becoming Freedom's eighth state champion in the sport but first to ever complete an undefeated season.
It was total superiority.
The way the game started, with Freedom ahead 17-4 at the 1:30 mark of the first quarter on junior Ariyana Williams' crossover and pull-up for her first points, it seemed the Pats may be headed for another rout.
The Nighthawks, led by 6-foot-3 sophomore Elissa Cunane, ensured it would be anything but.
"It wasn't our prettiest game, but a lot of that is a testament to Cunane," said FHS coach Amber Reddick, who has now claimed state titles as a player, assistant coach and head coach with the program.
Lady Patriots coach Amber Reddick finishes the job cutting down the nets at the team's pep rally in March 2016.
"They're a tough team and made some runs on us. I was impressed with us gutting it out at the end the way we had to. I thought our posts did a good job on her, and our guards did a good job pressuring the ball. It just came down to putting the ball in (Ariyana's) hands and letting her make free throws ... just believing in each other and making plays."
Cunane finished with game highs of 20 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks.
But Williams, who was named Kay Yow title game MVP, had an answer each time.
NG used a 10-2 run after their largest deficit (at 21-7) to trail just 23-17 when Williams drew contact in transition and made both free throws.
It was 43-38 Freedom after three periods when Williams grabbed a rebound and went coast-to-coast to increase the margin to three possessions once more.
At 48-44 after a Cunane bucket down low, Williams attacked the goal and her layup made it 50-44 with just under 4 minutes left.
And in the biggest spot of the year, up 50-48 with 51.6 seconds left, Williams made 3 of 4 free throws in 1-and-1 situations to seal the championship win.
Williams had 16 points, three rebounds and two assists in her 20th straight postseason game with double-digit points.
Freedom was just 6 of 13 at the foul line before Williams' late flurry; NG finished 17 for 21 at the stripe. Both teams shot just under 40 percent from the field, but FHS had 11 more attempts.
"It feels really good to be state champs and get our picture on the wall (at the FHS gym)," Williams said. "I know my teammates believe in me, and I believe in them."
Given the lopsided margins all year, how the team would perform in a close game "was a big question mark coming in," Reddick admitted.
"But down the stretch, the last 4 minutes, we really took care of the basketball."
The Freedom press rattled NG early, forcing eight turnovers in the opening six-plus minutes. But foul trouble to every post player, Amy Rhoney, Taylor Gardin and Charmee Miller, forced FHS into the halfcourt setting for most of the last three periods. FHS forced just six turnovers spanning the final three periods.
"We did let that take us out of our rhythm and the way we normally play," Reddick said.
NG coach Kim Furlough credited her team's slow start to nerves.
"Being on a big stage, as young as we are," she said, "but I was super proud of our comeback. We didn't give up, and that's the way we've been all year. They don't quit."
Freedom senior Lindsey Adams was named her team's most outstanding performer in the game after her 16 points on 3-of-4 shooting from 3-point range.
"Freedom did a good job on screens," Furlough added. "And Adams is a great shooter. She showed that."
As the game ended, Rhoney found Reddick and lifted her coach off the ground as they embraced.
"We went straight to each other," Rhoney said. "She's the greatest coach I've played for, and I appreciate all she did for me."
Junior Amaryah Corpening added six points and six rebounds for Freedom, Rhoney had seven points, a team-best eight boards and two blocks and senior Madison Ervin had four points, four rebounds and four steals.
"It still hasn't really hit me that we actually won," Ervin said. "We came out with a purpose to get that big lead, and we needed it. ... Our fans were huge too."
Reddick seconded that: "Our fans, school, administration and athletic director are amazing. We had so much support coming down here. I looked up and saw that sea of red up there, and it was so special."
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