SALISBURY — Red, black and gold had almost become the Sam Moir Christmas Classic’s official colors, but light blue returned to center stage on Saturday.
West Rowan’s top-seeded girls beat Salisbury decisively, leading by eight at halftime, pushing hard in the third quarter and finishing off the weary Hornets 62-48.
“I feel excited and overwhelmed right now,” said 6-foot-2 MVP Shay Steele. “We came out with a lot of intensity, and we made a statement that someone besides Salisbury can win this tournament.”
It was West’s first title since 1996 and the first time anyone other than the Hornets had won the event since Sophilia Hipps and North Rowan celebrated at Goodman Gym in 2002.
Cold-shooting Salisbury’s 23-game tournament streak crumbled under an avalanche of aerial buckets by Steele and Nycieko Dixon, while Khaila Hall and Alison Sobataka turned in sensational all-round games.
“We wanted to play Salisbury,” West coach Todd McNeely said. “It really does mean more. You want to be the team that ends a great streak like they’ve had. Salisbury is the bar in this county, and they set it high. We had to catch up.”
West, 13-14 a year ago, is now 12-0. Part of that is Hall, a freshman, who plays older than her years. Part of it is a willingness to put team success above individual numbers.
“Sharing the wealth,” McNeely said. “They’ve bought into that, and it makes all the difference.”
Sixth-seeded Salisbury (6-5) wasn’t going to be able to stay in the game forever with just one person scoring consistently. Brielle Blaire made incredible shots — leaning, floating, soaring — and tried to shoulder the offensive burden and beat West by herself the way she did Carson in the 2011 final. But the Falcons had too many options. Often Steele answered, but if she didn’t, Dixon, Sobataka or Hall did. Four Falcons scored in double figures, while only Blaire (27 points) reached double digits for Salisbury.
“We knew Brielle would try to take over, and she can just shoot over you,” said Steele, who had 17 points and eight boards. “But we stopped her some. We put a hand up on her shot and we boxed her out.”
Salisbury led 21-20 late in the first half when Dixon hit two free throws, Steele made two free throws, and Sobataka made a steal on one end and a 3-pointer on the other. That burst put West ahead to stay. When Steele scored on a stickback just before the halftime horn, the Falcons took a 31-23 lead to the locker room.
“Brielle came at us in the second half — she wasn’t going to just to go down,” McNeely said. “But we continued to push the ball. In the end, we were able to wear them down.”
A 3-pointer by Blaire midway through the third quarter pulled Salisbury within 38-34, but then West took off on a pivotal 9-0 run.
Dixon drove for two of her 18. Sobataka passed up an open look and fed Steele for two, and then Sobataka got a stickback. After two Dixon free throws and a bucket by Hall, it was 47-34, and a dynasty was teetering on the edge of a cliff.
“We shot terrible and we weren’t getting back on defense,” said Salisbury’s Doug Faison, who was coaching the Hornets for the last time. “No excuses — they beat us.”
West pushed the lead to 15 points early in the fourth quarter, and Salisbury never got closer than nine.
Sobataka’s driving and-one right down the lane made it 56-42 with four minutes left and surprised everyone in the gym, including herself.
“I’ve never had a feeling like that before,” she said. “I think it was because I’ve never wanted to win as badly as I wanted to win this game.”
When Daterria Connor hit a shot that cut West’s lead to 56-47 with three minutes left, Salisbury trailed by single digits, but a creative floater by Hall moved the lead back to 11.
Patreece Lattimore made a hustling steal for the Hornets with 1:37 remaining, but her layup that would’ve cut West’s lead to eight wouldn’t fall — and that was the Hornets’ last gasp.
“We definitely played the game we wanted to play,” said Sobataka, who made zero turnovers in 32 minutes. “We played under control. We played defense. We made the extra pass.”
Blaire, East’s Karleigh Wike and Davie’s Amy Steller — the top three scorers — joined Hall, Dixon and Steele on the all-tourney team.
SALISBURY (48) — B. Blaire 27, A. Blaire 6, Lattimore 5, Caldwell 4, Connor 4, Usry 1, Harris 1, Harmon .
WEST ROWAN (62) — Dixon 18, Steele 17, Sobataka 13, Hall 12, S. Miller 2, Q. Miller.
Salisbury 13 10 11 14 — 48
W. Rowan 12 19 16 15 — 62