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SALISBURY — Defending champion North Rowan shot 50 percent, put five guys in double figures and still had its hands full with West Rowan in Thursday’s opening-round of the Sam Moir Christmas Classic.
North looked good in an entertaining 81-73 victory, but the improvement in the Falcons is startling. Second-seeded North (6-2) beat West 67-47 on Nov. 30 in an ugly foul-fest.
“I’ve seen those guys miss a whole lot of shots this year,” North coach Andrew Mitchell said. “Still, you figure the ball is going to fall for West when they play us, and it did. They’re hard-nosed, and it was a tough game. I liked the way our team stood up and fought back.”
West shot 46 percent from the floor for the game, definitely a season-best, and the Falcons made nine 3-pointers.
“We showed up to play,” West’s Daisean Reddick said. “We need to eliminate some turnovers and play better defense, but we’ve improved.”
Celexus Long hit four of 3s and scored a career-high 16. Reddick splashed two 3s and scored 14. Devin Parks scored 13, his fourth straight double-figure effort since joining the team, and Chris Hassard battled inside for 11 points and pulled down seven of West’s 11 offensive rebounds.
North had its usual balanced scoring, with Malik Ford (15), Michael Connor (14), Oshon West (13), Michael Bowman (12) and Jalen Sanders (10) reaching double figures. West posted a game-high 11 rebounds. The swift Connor had six steals.
“Both teams really played hard tonight and both teams hustled on the defensive end,” said Bowman, who had eight rebounds. “Our bench gave us a good spark, and Connor and Malik played really well.”
The 6-foot-7 Ford’s dunk-filled performance was his most aggressive of the season.
Mitchell explained that film sessions with Ford have shown the talented big guy that he hasn’t been all that he can be.
“You think you’re playing pretty good, but then you watch the film and you’re making a whole lot of mistakes,” Ford said. “I tried to correct those mistakes tonight.”
Mitchell elaborated further on Ford.
“Malik didn’t like how he looked on film,” Mitchell said. “And he vowed not to play like that again.”
North has awesome spurtability, and its decisive run came in the second quarter.
The Falcons already had gotten 3s from Long, Parks and Seth Martin and were tied 18-all when the Cavaliers went on a sudden 13-0 run that was fueled by pressure defense.
T.J. Bates and Connor were getting steals, and West, Bowman and Ford were finishing in transition with authority.
“What happened there was we got some steady play from our second unit, and then the starters came in fresh and we had a good run,” Mitchell said. “In every game we’ve won, our second group has played well.”
West hit a 3-pointer to trigger that key run, and Ford threw down a dunk. North’s lead at halftime was 42-29.
When Bates made a spectacular tip-in in the third quarter and Ford smashed down another thunderous dunk, North led 65-47 and appeared to be on the verge of a TKO.
But instead of folding in the fourth quarter, seventh-seeded West (2-9) made its own run.
“Walk like a man and talk like a man,” said West coach Mike Gurley. “As far as our effort tonight, no complaints. None. This is just the spring for this team. The buds are sprouting and our summer is coming.”
In the fourth quarter, West pushed within 74-62 on a 3-pointer by Long with 3:11 left. When Reddick nailed a 3 with 2:35 left, it was 76-65.
“Nobody likes losing,” Ford said. “Today they played as hard as they’ve ever played.”
Another 3 by Martin made it 80-71, and things were getting serious, but the Falcons missed a shot in the lane, and Oshon West scored to stop West’s final charge.
“We’re getting better, but we didn’t do good enough,” Gurley said. “There were just too many defensive breakdowns, and we can’t let anyone, even someone as good as North, shoot 50 percent against us.”
North Rowan plays Salisbury today at 4:30 in a semifinal. West faces South in a 1:30 consolation.

WEST ROWAN (73) — Long 16, Reddick 14, Parks 13, Hassard 11, Martin 6, Tucker 5, Avery 5, Morrison 2, Gabriel 1, Blackwood, Gallagher, Phillips.
NORTH ROWAN (81) — Ford 15, Connor 14, West 13, Bowman 12, Sanders 10, Bates 6, Archie 6, B. Nelson 3, D. Nelson 2, Tate, Ellis, Walker.

W. Rowan 12 17 18 26 — 73
N. Rowan 16 26 23 16 — 81

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