OLIN — West Rowan assistant coach Mitchell Anderson, on the mend from a heart attack, greeted each weary Falcon that emerged from a happy locker room with a hug and a promise of a stylish dinner.
The West girls earned their hugs on Friday in the NPC championship game. North Iredell didn’t hand out anything but pain and bruises, but the Falcons were able to grind out a 44-38 victory.
“I knew it wouldn’t be pretty, but we stayed with it,” West coach Todd McNeely said. “And after that really ugly first quarter, it was a great high school game.”
It was a bruiser and a foul-fest between two teams ranked in the top 10 in 3A, but the golden trophy Shay Steele carried out of the locker room was still shiny.
West finally handled North Iredell after the Raiders beat them twice.
“For the first time, we were the team that wanted it more,” McNeely said.
North Iredell (16-7) made life tough for the 6-foot-2 Steele, as it always does. One girl behind her and one in front — forcing the other Falcons to beat them. Steele was held to 11 points, half her average, although she still had 13 rebounds and six blocks.
North Iredell also did a great job of limiting West’s devastating transition game — at least until the fourth quarter.
“We were tired from playing Carson (in Thursday’s semifinal) and they were rested,” said senior Alison Sobataka, who limited NI standout Brittini Cartner to eight points. “We couldn’t do some of things we wanted to do, but we did what we had to do.”
When McNeely talked about having a special season back in November, no one paid much attention, but the addition of unselfish freshman Khaila Hall transformed the chemistry of a team that was 13-14 a year ago. West won its first Moir Christmas Classic since 1996 and now it owns its first conference banner since the 2006 NPC tournament.
Hall had two huge and-ones in the fourth quarter, including the game’s biggest play.
West trailed 32-31 and North Iredell had the ball with the clock ticking under five minutes when Nycieko Dixon went to the floor for a steal. Somehow she got the ball to Hall. The freshman finished with a sprint to the hoop, and Stacey Lunsford, whose shooting and defense are critical for the Raiders, fouled out on the play.
West wouldn’t trail again.
“I just knew I had to get that ball and I had to get it to Khaila no matter how I got it to her,” Dixon said.
It was a struggle for a drained West team to stay afloat until that game-changing play. Lacey Fox had an incredible first quarter and pushed North Iredell to a 12-2 lead before West found its legs.
North Iredell had a brutal second quarter offensively, and when Hunter Gibbons hit two free throws and Taylor Martin passed to Steele for a layup, West led 21-19 at halftime.
It was 30-30 heading to the final quarter, but North Iredell, which shot 23 percent from the field and 43 percent from the foul line, couldn’t survive such shaky shooting forever.
“I saw panic and I saw no offensive execution for the first time in a long time,” NI coach Bradley Gabriel said. “Our defense kept us in the game, as it always does, but we just didn’t play well enough to win it.”
An under-the-weather Dixon had the worst first half of her life — O-fer shooting and all kinds of turnovers — but she scored 11 in the second half.
“I was overthinking everything in the first half, just trying to do too much,” she said.
Hall’s steal and pass to Quanice Miller gave West a 38-34 edge, and Hall broke out for her second big and-one with 1:32 left to put West in control.
“All night, I just kept waiting on a shot to fall,” Hall said. “But we kept working on defense until we could pull some offense together.”
West’s bench helped out. With the Falcons in awful foul trouble, Elizabeth Freeze contributed valuable minutes.
“Our bench came through,” McNeely said. “And I’m as proud of them as I am of winning this tournament.”
WEST ROWAN (44) —Steele 11, Dixon 11, Hall 9, S. Miller 4, Q. Miller 4, Sobataka 3, Gibbons 2, Martin, Freeze.
NORTH IREDELL (38) — Fox 11, Lunsford 9, Cartner 8, Johnson 7, Moore 2, Blevins 1, Tomlin, R. Redmond,
W. Rowan 8 13 9 14 — 44
N. Iredell 14 5 11 8 — 38