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Shaw column: Raiders hung in against talented North

SALISBURY ó It turns out all of Andrew Mitchellís pre-game nervousness was justified.
The North Rowan boys coach had an uneasy feeling about facing South Rowan in its Christmas Classic opener Tuesday night. Now he understands why.
ěThey beat us last summer at the Catawba camp,î Mitchell said moments after North fled the scene with a tougher-than-expected 77-65 win. ěSo we knew this wasnít going to be easy.î
Actually, it was and it wasnít. Statistically the teams didnít compare. North used its marked height advantage and abundant athleticism to rule the boards. The Cavs played their signature city-playground style, buried six of their first nine 3-point attempts and spent much of the evening threating to run away and hide.
Except that they never did. South rejected that notion with clarity, instead believing a victory over second-seeded North would have been sweeter than a plateful of Grandmaís Christmas cookies.
ěThatís the mentality of these kids,î reasoned South coach John Davis. ěThey show up with their lunch pails and play hard. They wonít back down to anyone.î
Of course, they could have. But the Raiders ó seeded seventh out of seven teams, lugging around an unsightly 2-11 record and a little beat up due to early-season injuries ó had themselves a tried-and-true game plan. Credit them for making it work, at least marginally, against the defending 1A state champion.
ěSlow it down,î said Qua Neal, one of only two seniors on Southís roster. ěWe knew if we took our time, we could set up our offense and hang around with them. If we hadnít ó and just rolled over and played dead ó they would have run us out of the gym.î
That almost happened. Northís Malik Ford was a low-post terror who thrilled the Goodman Gymnasium crowd with a showcase of industrial-strength dunks, including one with 2:39 remaining in the third quarter that provided a 21-point lead.
By late in the fourth period, following Josh Medlinís layup off a turnover, the Raiders had inched within 72-63.
ěWe had them dead in the water a couple of times,î Mitchell said. ěBut they just picked themselves up and got back into it. I think theyíre a reflection of their coach. John is a big, tough, rugged guy and thatís how they play. I told him I like his team. They have all the pieces.î
Putting them together and executing a battle plan is a challenge Davis has faced all season. South launched its season on a six-game road trip and returned home with a 1-5 souvenir. Then junior forward Nathan Lambert suffered a freak injury that shelved him for three games. Most recently, Medlin missed a game after biting his lip on a layup and requiring five stitches.
Both were back in the lineup for the first time last night. ěWhat they bring is confidence,î Davis said. ěWeíre back in our comfort zone. If I go walking around New York City, I donít feel as comfortable as I do in China Grove. Thatís how it feelsî
Neal certainly made himself at home, finishing with a career-best 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting. Teammates Shawn Spry and Houston Allen also reached double figures.
But in the end, Ford was built too tough and the Raiders made only 20 field goals. That simply wasnít enough.
ěWeíre tired of losing,î said Spry, a mop-topped sophomore. ěItís nice to say you stayed in the game, but we want to prove ourselves. We want to win a game in this tournament.î
So does Davis. ěYouíre judged by wins and losses,î he said. ěWhat we saw tonight was growth. And tomorrow weíll suit up and try to grow some more.î

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