As the basketball season enters the final conference stretch, there is no closer race than in the I-Meck where the Hopewell and Mallard Creek girls are tied atop the conference with a week to go in the regular season.
Hopewell (15-2, 8-1), No. 5 in the Observer's Sweet 16, has figured out every team on the schedule except the Mavericks.
The Titans only two losses came to Mallard Creek, first at the Bojangles' Shootout semifinals Dec. 29 (51-46 loss) and last month when the Mavericks defended their home court with a 60-52 over Hopewell.
The Titans and coach Gary Richmond will look to their frontcourt with Hannah Early, Sharee Boyd and Tiera Burks being a potentially dominant trio inside.
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Mallard Creek (16-3, 8-1) and coach C.J. Johnson have also been nearly unbeatable for the last month, with the Mavericks only conference loss coming at Lake Norman in December.
The Mavericks, the No. 4 in the Sweet 16, are led by junior guard Amber Neely, who had 27 points in the first game against the Titans and 17 in the second win.
Both teams will have a lot to play for Friday night with not only bragging rights, but also conference tournament and potential playoff seedings on the line.
While Mallard Creek has won in both meetings this season, this game will be a little different when the Mavericks have to travel to Hopewell.
Expect a close game that should come down to the final minutes.
The Titans have as much talent as anybody in the state, especially inside where Early (15 ppg, 8 rpg), Boyd (11 ppg, 6 rpg) and Burks (8 ppg, 5 rpg) form one of the most talented trios in the state.
Hopewell hopes to control the tempo and the boards to make it a grinding game, where half-court basketball dominates play.
But the Titans will also need to be stronger in the backcourt, where seniors Karoline Summerville and Hunter Meakin have the experience and talent to handle the Maverick's pressure.
The Hopewell bench could also be key. Freshman guard/forward Bryanna Curry and Victoria Spaulding could be key factors to provide depth.
Hopewell's senior-laden team wants to win the I-Meck title badly, and playing at home with a chance to be in the conference driver's seat is all you can ask for at this point in the season.
Expect Hopewell to be at their best, but whether that is good enough to beat Mallard Creek is yet to be determined.
The Mavericks have wasted little time in becoming one of the top teams in its conference in only their fourth year of existence.
While Hopewell relies on its frontcourt, Mallard Creek's strength is a dynamic backcourt led by Neely, who averages 15 points a game and has torched the Titans in its two wins this year.
But Neely has a lot of help in Nicole Graham, Najmah Tillard and Bria Revels to start.
The Mavericks have the height and depth to matchup inside with Hopewell. Somalia McKenny, a 5-foot-10 senior averaging 11 points per game, is the best option, but Niya Phillips, Bria Evans and Lonniesha White are solid.
Mallard Creek will look to push tempo as often as possible and get the Titans in uncomfortable positions and possibly foul trouble inside.
The Mavericks have a tough task in winning at Hopewell at this point in the season with what is at stake.
But if Mallard Creek can hang in there early, with what will likely be a rowdy crowd at Hopewell, the Mavericks will have a great chance to sweep the Titans and be in a solid sport for a regular season I-Meck crown and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.