High school basketball: West girls in clash of titans

Published 8:37 am Saturday, March 4, 2023

By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA  — Two girls basketball teams that have enjoyed incredibly dominant seasons will square off today, and something has to give in the 3A West Region final.

Tipoff for the “Final Four” contest is set for 1 p.m. in Marion at McDowell County High. Marion is only 30 or so miles east of Asheville.

It’s a venue choice by the NCHSAA that means a substantial road game for both teams. East Lincoln will travel about 60 miles, while the Falcons and their fan base will be on the road for about 90 miles.

Second-seeded East Lincoln (31-0) has totally crushed opponents, has won 29 of its games by double digits. The most impressive win by the Mustangs may have been the one against 4A Mallard Creek in the Winter Jam Christmas Tournament.

Top-seeded West Rowan (29-0) hasn’t had a game closer than 23 points. A few teams have stayed reasonably close for a half, but the Falcons eventually have pounded everyone, including good teams such as Ashe County and Ben L. Smith in the state playoffs.

West beat Smith with a running clock (up 40 in the second half), which is insane for a regional semifinal.

East Lincoln and West Rowan tangled fiercely twice in summer camp games, so they know each other well.

East Lincoln, a school in Denver, on the western side of Lake Norman, eliminated West 58-56 in the second round of the 2022 state playoffs. Obviously, West Rowan hasn’t lost since that game.

That 2022 game may or may not have any bearing on what happens today. Both teams are quite a bit different now than they were then.

East Lincoln graduated the guards from last season’s team, although East Lincoln still has the same imposing frontcourt. Forward Madison Self is a 5-foot-11 senior with modest per-game averages but she can step up and dominate a big game. She had 20 points and 12 rebounds against Mallard Creek.  Senior Ginny Overbay (5-foot-10) focuses on defense. Sophomore Hailey McFadden did some serious damage against the Falcons last season, and at 6-foot-2, she’s one of the leading scorers on a balanced team with 11.1 points per game.

Freshman guards Kiara Anderson and Emma Montanari have been huge additions this season for coach Jason Otey. Anderson provides quickness and ball-handling, while Montanari is a double-digit scorer.

The sixth Mustang to know is Madison Bissinger, an experienced 5-foot-10 senior.

West Rowan’s assets have been well-documented by this point.

The Falcons returned their top seven players from last season, seniors Dede Cuthbertson and Sarah Durham and juniors Lauren Arnold, De’Mya Phifer, Emma Clarke, Makaylah Tenor and Mya Edwards.

Arnold is the leading scorer, a solid 3-point shooter and excellent rebounder. Phifer has great quickness and can get to the rim. Clarke, a 6-footer, has a soft touch and some bounce and is one of the county’s best athletes. Tenor and Edwards are wild cards. They may not score today, but they also are capable of scoring in double figures and making the difference.

To that returning group the Falcons added freshman Tiara Thompson, who has been their best player in some games. She’s a very advanced and talented freshman,

West also added Jamecia Huntley, who has brought size, athletic ability and priceless experience to the program. Huntley is in her third Final Four. She helped Salisbury get to one as a freshman and helped the Hornets win the regional final and the 2A state championship as a junior.

Neither program has been a power on the state level often, although both of them figure to be around for a while now. West will be very powerful again next season.

This is only the second regional final ever for West. The Falcons lost 30 years ago in the regional final to North Iredell.

If you believe in karma, it’s been 20 years since West’s boys basketball team went undefeated and won the state title. It’s also been 20 years since West Rowan’s softball team was the last bunch of “Lady Falcons” to win a state championship.

East Lincoln has won one state title, going undefeated in 1973, 50 years ago, and winning an open classification title at a time when NCHSAA girls basketball championships were just getting started.

East Lincoln recognized that team at a game earlier this season.

East Lincoln went a while between great teams. The second-best team in program history was the one that knocked out West Rowan in 2022 and finished 28-2 with a third-round loss.

Still playing in the 3A East are Cape Fear and Rocky Mount. Both are very good. Neither is undefeated.

State championships will be held next Saturday at either the Smith Center in Chapel Hill or Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.