OLIN — First West Rowan lost its edge, then its composure and finally its grip on first place in the NPC standings.
It all happened Friday night at North Iredell, where the Falcons dropped a 49-39 decision and tumbled into third place.
“It’s just a loss,” fiesty guard Nycieko Dixon downplayed after West was knocked out of a three-way tie for first place. “What does that make us, 19-2? All we can do is hold our heads up and wait until we face them again.”
That may unfold in the conference tournament, but last night the Falcons (19-2, 8-2) weren’t turning any cartwheels. They missed a number of primo scoring chances and turned the ball over 19 times. They routinely went two and three minutes between baskets. And senior Shay Steele had a dismal game, shooting just 4-for-15 from the field and scoring a season-low eight points.
“I’m not sure but I think we finally got a big-game jitter,” West coach Todd McNeely said after his team’s four-game winning streak was halted. “This is the most nervous I’ve seen us all season. Even at the Christmas tournament we weren’t this nervous. You come into a big court like this with lots of fans, lots of hooting and hollaring, and it made it a tough game.”
Both McNeely and North coach Bradley Gabriel repeatedly had words with the officiating crew, but the hosts were better at adapting and moving along. It all boiled over when McNeely was called for a technical foul with 1:32 remaining.
“I guess we lost our cool,” Steele said. “From here on it’s all about not losing your cool and not letting anyone take you out of your game. The refs wouldn’t let us play our game. We couldn’t get physical. When we did, nothing was falling.”
Most newsworthy was the fall North senior Brooke Redmond took with 3:42 remaining in the second quarter. The all-conference forward suffered a right knee injury and didn’t return.
“A lot of people thought we were gonna fold,” Gabriel said after NI (13-6, 9-1) moved into a two-way tie for first with Carson. “Even me. You don’t ever game-plan to be without your star player. That caught me off guard.”
A lot of other people — including many of West’s passionate fans — believed the fat lady was about to sing. Then North’s Brittani Cartner and Mariah Johnson stepped to the microphone.
“When (Redmond) went down, I was mad. Really mad,” Cartner said after tossing in a game-best 17 points. “We all kind of sensed that we needed to step up. But with Brooke or without her, I always thought we would win the game.”
Added McNeely: “When Brooke went down it should have changed the game a lot, but it didn’t,” he said. “We didn’t take advantage. We just started fumbling the ball around. We had turnovers and about 12 missed layups.”
Nixon, one of two Falcons who fouled out, thought differently.
“That was our big chance,” she said. “I thought we would attack the rack — and we did. The shots just didn’t drop.”
It was still anybody’s game after Steele drove the left side for one of her signature dribble-drive layups to tie the score 29-29 early in the fourth quarter. The Raiders surged to a four-point lead when Cartner took a lob pass from Johnson and sank a layup. Moments later it was 37-31 on Johnson’s sneaky-quick penetration down the lane.
“(Cartner) is a great all-around player for them,” said McNeely. “We contained her in the middle of the game but she hurt us late. When you get into foul trouble you have to put people in different situations. Then they start getting beat and everybody gets upset.”
Perhaps Cartner’s three-point play with 2:30 to go cemented the outcome. It gave North an eight-point lead and saddled Steele with her fourth personal.
“It was a good learning lesson,” Steele said afterward. “Every round we’ll be playing, whether its here or at home or somewhere else, will be just like this. Nothing easy.”
Alison Sobataka added two 3-pointers for West but the Falcons had no one else over six points.
WEST ROWAN (39) — Dixon 12, Steele 8, Sobataka 6, Hall 5, S.Miller 3, Gibson 3, Q.Miller 2, James, Freeze.
NORTH IREDELL (49) — Cartner 17, Johnson 15, Lunsford 5, Fox 5, B.Redmond 4, Tomlin 2, Pfholer 1.
W. Rowan 10 7 10 12 — 39
N. Iredell 13 8 8 20 — 49
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