High school girls basketball: West ends tourney drought

Published 4:18 am Saturday, February 18, 2023

By Mike London

CONCORD — And the beat goes on. And the beatdowns.

Add West Rowan’s undefeated girls basketball team to the list of destructive forces of nature. Alphabetically, West should follow earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and volcanoes.

The third-seeded Central Cabarrus girls (17-10) have an aggressive, feisty team, but the South Piedmont Conference Tournament championship game was a major mismatch for a title bout. It was like the Karate Kid in a cage against Chuck Norris.

West won 79-31. That was with a running clock kicking in a little more than halfway through the third quarter when the Falcons went ahead by 40 — and with limited scoring in the fourth quarter.

“I thought we played really well,” West coach Ashley Poole said. “People wanted to talk about the playoffs, but my only concern was winning this game against Central Cabarrus. When you’re playing someone for the third time, they’ve seen what you can do, and they’ve had time to adjust.”

The Vikings, who beat No. 2 seed Northwest Cabarrus in a mild upset in the semifinals, did try to adjust. But when they’re taller than you and faster than you, shoot it better than you and are  deeper than you, there’s only so much adjusting you can do.

The Vikings like to press and they caused titanic turnover problems for East Rowan, South Rowan and Carson. But West is more talented, more experienced, harder to press than those teams.

“They tried to slow us down some with the press, but we can usually get the ball to the middle to a person with height (Emma Clarke or Jamecia Huntley) who can see over defenders and make a good decision,” Poole said. “Then we can try to attack.”

While the victory by the top-seeded Falcons (25-0) was the surest of sure things, it still mattered a lot if you live in Mount Ulla, Cleveland or Woodleaf.  That’s because while West has won plenty of games in recent seasons, there’s been a shortage of hardware for the trophy case. Before this season, the Falcons hadn’t celebrated a championship in girls basketball since the 2019 Christmas Tournament.

Conference tournaments had been especially frustrating for the Falcons. Carson, obviously, was a major road block for multiple seasons, and there also have been recent tournament losses by West to East Rowan and Northwest Cabarrus.

West hadn’t prevailed in its league tournament since 2016 when a memorable Poole-coached team that included Khaila Hall, Egypt Alexander, Mary Sobataka, Taylor Martin and Shanice Miller, beat Hickory Ridge in a 52-51 SPC final that was an instant classic. So the Falcons celebrated on Friday on Coach Bo Court in Concord High’s Rimer Gym. You couldn’t blame them.

West went to work offensively with a 26-point first quarter, then went to work defensively by holding the Vikings to four points in the second quarter. It was 47-16 at halftime.

“Central is a strong rebounding team with some physical players, so one of the keys tonight was to limit their offensive boards,” Poole said. “That’s what we worked on preparing for this game. Just old-fashioned boxouts.”

Lauren Arnold scored 28 for West, bumping her career total to 979. She’s consistent, a tough rebounder and a solid shooter. More people probably know about Salisbury’s Kyla Bryant and North Rowan’s Bailee Goodlett, who are putting up crazier numbers, but you can put Arnold in that top tier of elite Rowan players.

West got 16 points from De’Mya Phifer, a guard, who flies around like her hair is on fire, and 12 from Tiara Thompson, a poised freshman.

Clarke, Huntley, Makaylah Tenor, DeDe Cuthbertson and Mya Edwards also got in the scorebook.

Jalayah Ray scored 10 and Kyra Lewis had nine for the Vikings, who are safely in the state playoffs with a 3A West RPI ranking of  21st.

West Rowan has been  atop the 3A West RPI rankings for a long time. The Falcons expect to be announced today as the No. 1 seed in the bracket.

That’s been a goal. That would mean lots of home games.

When West announced its roster back in November, everyone knew a special season could be in the cards. With Thompson and Huntley, a big part of Salisbury’s 2020 regional runners-up and 2022 2A state champs, joining seven strong returners, it was apparent that the Falcons would contend for a state championship if they could stay healthy.

They basically have. Edwards missed several games with an injury and Phifer missed one with dental work, but they’ve generally been able to report for work, and they’ve yet to have anything resembling a close game. They’ve won every game by 23 or more. They beat Central 63-31 and 89-46 during the regular season.

“It has been a great year because we’ve always prepared for one game at a time and haven’t looked ahead,” Poole said. “Now we can prepare for a playoff game.”

Central Cabarrus  12     4    8     7   — 31

West Rowan          26    21   22  10 — 79

Central — Ray 10, Lewis 9, Burton 4, Duncan 3, Stanly 3, Smith 2.

West — Arnold 28, Phifer 16, Thompson 12, Clarke 8, Tenor 6, Huntley 5, Cuthbertson 2, Edwards 2.