High school girls basketball: Unbeaten Falcons in state title game for the first time

Published 6:23 pm Saturday, March 4, 2023

By Mike London

MARION — Trailing at halftime, West Rowan’s girls basketball team was able to respond positively to the first serious adversity it has faced all season.

The top-seeded Falcons beat second-seeded East Lincoln 49-42 in a physical and emotional 3A West Region final on Saturday afternoon in front of a big throng at McDowell County High.

It was the 30th straight triumph for the unbeaten Falcons and the first setback for East Lincoln (31-1), which knocked West Rowan out of the playoffs in a second-round game in 2022.

“We’re thrilled, thrilled and excited to be playing for a state championship,” gushed West head coach Ashley Poole, after the biggest victory of her 10-season tenure with the Falcons. “This is a fantastic feeling. This was a fight. We beat a great team.”

West had won its previous 29 games by 23 or more points, but East Lincoln was all that it was cracked up to be, a formidable aggregation with tall people, athletic people and skilled guards who could handle the ball against pressure.

It was junior guard De’Mya Phifer who made the critical offensive plays for the Falcons down the stretch, and West’s defense held East Lincoln to a meager 16 points in the second half.

West started reasonably well and led 16-15 after a feisty first quarter.

Then the Falcons got flustered and frustrated in the second quarter. They forced shots, threw the ball away at an alarming rate, gave up easy hoops and fell behind by as many as seven points.

East Lincoln had a five-point lead, with the ball, late in the half, so the Falcons were fortunate to trail 26-23 at the break.

Even after that awful second quarter, West was only down three and still in decent shape.

“We had a bad second quarter, couldn’t get a rebound, got killed on the boards and turned it over way too much,” Poole said. “We did so many uncharacteristic things and just didn’t look like ourselves at all. That’s what we talked about at halftime, about being who we are, about being that team that we’ve been all year. We got it together in the second half and I thought our guards (Phifer and Tiara Thompson) did a great job of controlling the tempo of the game.”

Lauren Arnold buried a 3-point look from the left wing for a 28-all tie early in the third quarter. That shot was massive and triggered a West surge. After transition buckets by Arnold and Phifer, the Falcons led by four. They shut down East Lincoln and led 36-32 heading to the fourth quarter.

With West clinging to a 41-38 lead with 2:31 remaining, Phifer drove, drew two defenders and dished to Jamecia Huntley for a key layup.

When Phifer drove and made a pretty incredible shot, splitting two defenders as they banged into her, the Falcons were up seven with 2:10 left.

From there, the Falcons were able to stay calm and use the clock to their advantage, and East Lincoln had no choice except to foul.

Thompson made enough of her free throws to keep West in front before Phifer hit two clinchers with 17 seconds left.

It was a team effort for West that included big jump shots in the second half by Mya Edwards and Makaylah Tenor.

Arnold scored 14 to lead West. Phifer had 12.

Emma Clarke scored eight and helped the Falcons hold East Lincoln’s 6-foot-2 center Hailey McFadden to two points after halftime.

“East Lincoln has a lot of size, and they aren’t just tall, they’ve got athletes,” Poole said. “We did a much better job defensively and on the boards on their big girls in the second half.”

West is in the championship game for the first time in program history and will play Rocky Mount at 2:30 p.m. at Reynolds Coliseum next Saturday.

East Lincoln   15   11   6    10  —  42

West Rowan   16   7    13   13   — 49

E. Lincoln — McFadden 12, Anderson 10, Montanari 9, Hege 7, Self 2, Overbay 2.

W. Rowan — Arnold 14, Phifer 12, Clarke 8, Thompson 7, Huntley 4, Edwards 2, Tenor 2.