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Prep Basketball: Nick Bowton column: This rivalry as good as it gets

GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan led by 20 points with 45 seconds left Tuesday night when coach Greg McKenzie replaced his starters with five guys who average a combined 2.8 points per game.

As star guard Justin Vanderford walked toward the bench, he turned back toward the subs and yelled a couple of words.

Play hard.

The Mustangs could have played dead and still won the game, but Vanderford’s words had to do with the opponent, not the outcome.

East Rowan was playing West Rowan. That means whether you’re 50 points ahead or 50 points behind, you play as though you’re tied in a state championship game.

That’s what rivals do.

This particular rivalry has been around for some time, although it wasn’t always this good. As West coach Mike Gurley put it, “Let’s face it, until the last three or four years it wasn’t no rivalry. It was a social gathering, and we would win by 50.”

Sounds harsh, but it’s true. East-West was considered a rivalry back when the Falcons were winning 91-35 in the 1999-2000 season.

“It surprised me when I came to East, everybody told me our biggest rival was West,” said McKenzie, who’s in his third season with the Mustangs. “I was thinking, ‘West kills y’all every year.’ ”

Not any more.

Vanderford said the rivalry was rejuvenated back in 2002-03. East had gone 2-22 the previous season, and West was on its way to a second straight state title. The Mustangs didn’t pull off a miraculous upset that season, but they did have perhaps the best one-point loss in school history, 57-56 in the Sam Moir Christmas Classic.

“I think that’s what made it worse,” Vanderford said.

Worse because the teams have despised each other on the court ever since — but better because that’s when this rivalry actually became one.

The next season, East swept the Falcons. They split in 2004-05. Last season, East won both regular-season games, only to lose to West in the Christmas tournament final.

“Ever since I’ve been here, that’s all I know — East and West,” said Jamel Carpenter, West’s best player and the reigning county player of the year. “That’s one of our biggest rivals right there. That might be our biggest rival in the county and the conference.”

No offense to South Rowan and Carson or Salisbury and North Rowan, but right now East and West is where it’s at.

“I was telling Mike before the game, this is why Rowan County basketball is so great,” McKenzie said. “Here we are on a Tuesday night, the gym is packed. Our students are going crazy. Their students are going crazy. How much more fun can it be?”

That depends on whether you’re winning or losing. After East lost 76-74 on Carpenter’s game-winning shot last week, Vanderford left the court in tears. Last night, he was all smiles as the Mustangs won 67-54.

Vanderford and Carpenter went at it several times, as they always do. Both players admitted they talk plenty of “junk” when they play, but they play some of their best games against each other as well.

So do other players.

East’s Shawn Eagle, who played at South last season and said he’d always catch an East-West game if the Raiders weren’t playing, showed the most intensity he has all season. Point guard Spenser Davis had his most successful night of the season attacking the basket.

“The East-West rivalry, everybody wants to win it,” Davis said. “The fans, the whole community, it’s like we’re pros or whatever. Thirty-two minutes we’re warring at each other, going at each other.

“It’s intense.”

Don’t expect that to change any time soon.

“It seems like we do this every year,” Vanderford said. “Split and then … I already told (Carpenter) we’d play him in the championship game in the Christmas tournament. I got a feeling. A really good feeling.”

*

Contact Nick Bowton at 704-797-4256 or nbowton@salisburypost.com.

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