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Moir preview: East boys look to end title drought

By Mike London

Salisbury Post

East Rowan’s top-seeded boys basketball team has reached the final of the last two Sam Moir Christmas Classics and might be ready to finally break through when the tournament is contested for the 35th time this week.

To take home the trophy, however, the Mustangs (8-1) must shrug off all sorts of negative history.

East last won the event in 1975. The Mustangs are 1-7 in Moir championship games and 0-4 against West Rowan, their most likely championship-game opponent this year. The Falcons beat the Mustangs in championship showdowns in 1972, 1984, 1989 and 2005.

East didn’t play in a single final from 1991-2003 but has been in the championship game both seasons since Greg McKenzie became the head coach.

Four of East Rowan’s eight wins have come against winless North Rowan and Carson, but the Mustangs have also beaten second-seeded, once-beaten West Rowan by 13 at home and knocked off always-tough R.J. Reynolds to secure the No. 1 seed for the tournament.

With four double-figure scorers, the experienced Mustangs have the most firepower in the tournament. What they don’t have is size — a weakness West and possibly Salisbury have a chance to exploit.

East’s only loss came on a brilliant, last-second shot by West’s Jamel Carpenter in West’s gym, and the Mustangs were pretty impressive even in that game, wiping out an early 25-4 deficit.

Carpenter is still Carpenter. Pfeiffer coach Dave Davis, who always checks out the Christmas tournament, wondered earlier this year who the second-best player in Rowan County was. Everyone, Davis included, knows who No. 1 is.

Fourth-seeded South Rowan is East’s most likely second-round opponent because the Raiders always seem to beat their first-round foe, Davie County, when they meet at Catawba. South is 11-3 in Moir meetings against the fifth-seeded War Eagles.

Salisbury was 0-11 this time last year, so being 4-4 and the No. 3 seed is OK. The four losses are to West, East, powerhouse Concord and CCC favorite Lexington.

“The tough part of the schedule is behind us, and it’s just something we had to weather to get to the back end,” Salisbury coach Jason Causby said. “We have a chance to be a very good basketball team.”

North Rowan has never been winless nine games into a season, but the Cavaliers are close to breaking through. The Cavs always seem to play their best against West, so the first-round North-West matchup may be more interesting than the records suggest.

The boys Christmas tournament began in 1971. No tournament was held in 1988, when the area was struck by a measles epidemic.

RoMedical Care became the primary sponsor of the tournament last season. Carson debuts this year with a first-round game against Salisbury.

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When East won the seven-team Christmas tournament in 1975 — North Davidson was part of the field then — it was about a 50-to-1 long-shot.

South Rowan was undefeated coming into the tournament and was putting arguably the strongest team in school history on the floor. The Raiders won the NPC title that season and finished with a 24-4 record.

North Davidson, the defending WNCHSAA champion and defending Christmas tournament champion, had one loss coming into the tourney.

The Mustang boys entered the event with the worst record in the field at1-4, but there were extenuating circumstances. Rick Vanhoy missed two early games because of the Shrine Bowl. Once he was done with football, East had a decent team, but not a great team. East, coached by former North Rowan and Appalachian State star Gilbert Sprinkle, tied for fourth in the NPC and finished 13-12.

Vanhoy scored 20 points as East beat North Rowan in the first round.

Then the Mustangs survived a sloppy, double-overtime game with West in the semifinals. That victory over the Falcons is one of just two victories by East over West in the history of the Christmas tournament.

East had the luxury of watching North Davidson and South go at it hard in the other semifinal. South eliminated the Black Knights 78-73 in a terrific game.

In the championship game, Vanhoy took a pass from Walter Sifford and hit the winning bucket in overtime to give the Mustangs a victory over South.

Vanhoy had 21 points and 12 rebounds in the title game and was the first and last Mustang to be named tourney MVP.

There’s a 50-50 chance a second East name will be added to the list on Friday. The Mustangs aren’t 50-to-1 this time.

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Salisbury coach Jennifer Shoaf doesn’t mind being the No. 2 seed behind North Rowan (8-1) in the girls bracket. Anything to deflect some of the pressure and expectations from a very young team.

“Gosh, I appreciate the paper making us the favorite,” Shoaf said with a laugh after last week’s win over Concord. “I’m not so sure we are.”

North is big, powerful, intimidating and good, but Shoaf’s speedy Hornets (6-2) are still the favorite until proven otherwise. Salisbury has won three straight Moir titles, and is looking to become the first squad — girls or boys — to take home four trophies in a row.

Salisbury is also on a nice 95-9 run entering the tournament, and when you’ve won that often for that long, you deserve the benefit of the doubt.

The faces and names have changed at Salisbury — Sade Jordan, Shayla Fields, Ashley Watkins and Saybah Sammy are all gone now — but the wins, sometimes ugly, sometimes pretty, keep coming.

The smothering defense is still there for the Hornets, but Salisbury walks a fine line on offense these days. It’s not hard to see the Hornets losing to North Rowan or any other good team if Kwameshia Hicks has an off shooting night.

Shoaf’s biggest concern is her team’s age. The younger the player, the better chance the Christmas holiday will create a distraction from playing solid basketball.

“I’m just hoping we’ll have our focus and can make a few shots on the big court at Catawba,” said Shoaf, who will open against Carson. “The crowd there is totally different. The atmosphere is totally different. It’s a game-changing atmosphere, and it will be a challenge for our young girls.”

North Rowan has ripped off six straight wins since losing at West Rowan, and coach Mike White’s inside trio of Sierra Ingram, Quon Cuthbertson and Shavonna Casey has balanced the outside fireworks provided by smooth left-hander Shemieka Brown.

West Rowan struggled into the Christmas break after high-scoring Brooke Taylor injured a wrist, and East Rowan’s chances are hurt by an ankle injury that may sideline sophomore guard Katelynne Poole.

South Rowan has the size to scare anyone when it walks on the floor but probably isn’t quick enough to deal with Salisbury or North.

Davie will play as hard as anyone in the event, and its opening-round matchup against South should be competitive, physical and fun.

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Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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