Sherry Norris is in a tough spot.
She’s been in tough spots before, and she knows how to pull out a win.
But this isn’t a question of winning or losing. This is about winning or winning bigger.
One of the all-time winningest coaches in North Carolina high school history, Norris is in one of those situations everyone thinks is easy to handle until they have to handle it themselves.
Norris has to figure out just how hard to pull back on the reins of her Chapel Hill girls basketball team. Should she make them slow the tempo every time they blow out an opponent, or should they simply keep going full speed?
People might think this is a bit like having two really good quarterbacks, either of whom could start. “What a nice problem to have,” they say.
In a way, that applies in the case of Chapel Hill’s girls team.
The Tigers are the top team in the state’s 3A ranks, according to maxpreps.com, and it’s clearly easier to accept being a No. 1 team than No. 111.
But, like being the fastest gun in the West, being the best comes with some costs.
Chapel Hill, 15-0 heading into this Tuesday’s game at Cardinal Gibbons, has been averaging 72.5 points a game while holding opponents to 28.3.
That gap has deepened since the Chapel Hill has entered Carolina Eight Conference play. The Tigers have averaged 82.4 points a game on league rivals, allowing them just 19 points a game.
Some football teams would be grateful to limit opponents to 19 points a game.
At times, the gaps between Chapel Hill and opponents have approached farcical levels.
At Northern Vance, the Tigers led 55-8 at the half, and one got the impression that had they not taken their foot on the gas a bit at the start of the third quarter, they would have broken their school’s scoring record.
As it turned out, Chapel Hill beat the Lady Vikings 100-17.
One week after that, Chapel Hill led Orange 44-2 at halftime. That ballooned to 56-2 in the third period.
The team’s record for scoring margin, 83 points, set at Northern Vance, would have been in reach had the Tigers continued to press.
Instead, Norris opted to have her team work on its 1-3-1 zone, allowing Orange the option of holding down the score if it so desired.
That didn’t do much to soothe the winless Panthers’ feelings. Late in the game, frustrations bubbled over into some hard fouls from behind on some breakaway layups.
One Chapel Hill player came up limping after she was sent tumbling over the endline onto the hardwood.
“Some people think we’re running up the score on them, but were not,” Norris said after the 90-16 win at Orange. “My girls are just playing basketball, and playing as hard as they can.”
Norris is facing a conundrum not unlike one that even college coaches encounter. North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, both of whom have coached juggernaut teams in their times, likewise heard whispered accusations that they were running up scores on weak opponents.
Those charges never make much sense.
Unlike football, which has used polls and public perception to help decide who gets to play for a national championship, basketball decides its champions solely by tournament wins. A coach gains nothing from beating up a poor team by 50 points when a 10-point win will do.
But teams improve by playing well. That’s what good coaches want their teams to do; they want them to play at 100 percent, regardless of the score.
Even while playing their hardest, teams can avoid looking like rapacious boors by concentrating on things other than scoring offense.
A football team that’s up by 35 points in the fourth quarter might opt just to run up the middle. One local soccer coach, when his team gets too close to 10-goal lead, will insist his players shoot only with their left foot or their heads.
Basketball teams can work on passing, or, in the case of Chapel Hill’s game at Orange, work on zone defense.
But they need to keep playing at full intensity if they are to improve.
To do any less is to disrespect the opponent.