David Shaw: West girls trying to put last year’s crushing playoff defeat behind them

Published 12:01 am Thursday, March 2, 2023

By David Shaw

MOUNT ULLA — Nobody wants to move away from the past more urgently than coach Ashley Poole and the unblemished West Rowan girls basketball team.

That’s because nobody can forget the soul-crushing loss East Lincoln pinned on the Falcons more than a calendar year ago — a 58-56 punch-in-the-gut that ended their season in Round 2 of the 3A state playoffs. A punch like that leaves a bruise.

“It hurt,” Poole admitted Tuesday night, moments after top-seeded West (29-0) floated into Saturday’s regional final with a breezy fourth-round win over Ben L. Smith. “They beat us at the buzzer. We weren’t devastated, but we felt it all summer. We can prepare all we want, but we’ll always know East Lincoln is the team that put us out of the playoffs.”

Now comes the rematch. The Mustangs, seeded No. 2, have been living rent-free in Poole’s psyche since Feb. 24 of last year. Like the Falcons, they play defense first — and second and third. And like West, they boast three scorers who carry modest double-digit scoring averages. They’re 31-0 and outpointing opponents by more than 36 per outing. Yet it’s a showdown West eagerly welcomes.

“It fuels us just knowing they took us out and we have a chance to get revenge,” chirped six-foot junior Emma Clarke, her eyes the size of dinner plates. “This whole season, we’ve been expecting to see them at the very end. Now we get the opportunity.”

Of course, no one’s ever called a holding penalty for holding a grudge. West has vented its frustration against lesser combatants, sweeping through the regular season and SPC tournament. Since the playoffs launched nine days ago, it has imposed its will on West Charlotte, North Davidson, Ashe County and now Smith — dismissing each in imperial fashion. Along the way, the Falcons have established school records for most triumphs and fewest setbacks in a season — and triggered a running clock 21 times. To invoke some ageless sports jargon, they’ve simply made good teams look bad and are clicking like never before.

“It’s our defense,” insisted forward Jamecia Huntley, one of three seniors on West’s roster and the only one who has dined on state championship fare. “We’ve played a lot of good teams this year. You learn that defense wins games. Defense is what makes us.”

It did against Smith, a fourth seed out of Greensboro. West forced eight turnovers in the first quarter of a 64-27 joyride, limited the Golden Eagles to eight field goals and repeatedly coaxed the visitors to hoist low-percentage shots from the perimeter and fight for tightly contested layups. The Falcons played with an air of confidence, a cool assuredness — like the kid who already knows what she’s getting for her birthday.

“My heart rate was 112 before this game,” said Poole, now the owner of 173 career coaching victories. “It was kicking pretty good, but hey, I’m always nervous ahead of time. I have to trust my players. They do the homework and watch the films. They’re students of the game. They know how to prepare and go execute. They are a dream team to coach.”

Well, maybe now they can start to dream.

“The plan is to come in with the same energy and intensity,” offered freshman Tiara Thompson, the backcourt dynamo who has quietly earned an ‘A’ in team chemistry. “We’ll try to use our ball movement and our switching to make (East Lincoln) work really hard on defense. That’s our hope.”

Ah, but even Gladys Knight and her Pips know dreams don’t always come true. And the past, Poole has accepted, is never that far away.

“Not sure about that,” said Lauren Arnold, the 5-10 junior who sports a team-best 16.2 points-per-game average. “We’ve let last year go. Our coach won’t let us dwell on it. We see how we let our mental state beat us. That won’t happen this time.”

Only Saturday knows what will happen. Gametime is 1 p.m. at McDowell High School in Marion. A victory would thrust the Falcons into the state championship game March 11 in Raleigh or Chapel Hill.

“These girls are hungry,” Poole concluded with a determined stare. “They want it back. This is not last year. They’ve learned a lot from that loss, built on it over the summer. I believe East Lincoln will see a different team on Saturday.”

A team with an agenda, hoping to make more history.


Photo gallery from game is here https://www.salisburypost.com/2023/02/28/photo-gallery-west-girls-romp-64-27/