High school girls basketball state championships: Tough opponents for West, Salisbury

Published 12:01 am Thursday, March 9, 2023



By Mike London


SALISBURY — Not surprisingly, the girls basketball teams from West Rowan and Salisbury will face challenging opponents in Saturday’s state championship games.

West Rowan (30-0) will take on Rocky Mount (30-1) at 2:30 p.m. in Raleigh at Reynolds Coliseum for the 3A state championship.

Salisbury (26-3) will battle Seaforth (27-3) at 5 p.m. at Chapel Hill’s Dean Smith Center for the 2A state championship.

There was some movement from the expected venues with the NCHSAA reacting to overflow crowds at some of the regional sites.

The Smith Center holds 21,000 and gets the marquee 4A games and the 2A games, while Reynolds, which seats 5,100, will handle the 1A and 3A contests.

Tickets are online only at $15, plus a service fee.

Both games involving Rowan schools are scheduled to be televised on Charlotte’s WCCB.

West Rowan vs. Rocky Mount

Rocky Mount, about 50 miles northeast of Raleigh, is a storied athletic school in the tobacco country.

In 1the 1962-63 school year, led by quarterback/point guard/pitcher Danny Talbott, the Rocky Mount boys teams accomplished the feat of winning the football, basketball and basketball state championships in the same school year.  Rocky Mount boys basketball produced ACC stars Phil Ford (UNC) and Buck Williams (Maryland) in the 1970s.

Despite a long history of male athletic success, Rocky Mount’s girls basketball program made it to the regional for the first time since 2012 and is in the state championship game for the first time ever.

The Gryphons were seeded second in the East. They have won 24 games in a row since losing to 4A Hillside on Dec. 10.

Rocky Mount brings a combination of skill and athletic ability to the battle with West Rowan.

Caroline Thiel is the most consistent player for the Gryphons, A 6-foot guard, she averages 19.3 points and signed with the Charlotte 49ers.

Freshman Kira Jones averages 13.2 points. She draws a lot of fouls. In the regional final win against Cape Fear, Jones shot a whopping 19 free throws and got 13 of her 19 points at the foul line.

Senior Nyla Powell had a rough shooting game against Cape Fear (3-for-19 from the field and 4-for-12 on free throws for 10 points), but she’s aggressive on the glass. She grabbed 22 rebounds.

Dee Graham makes some 3-pointers and gives Rocky Mount another double-figure scorer.

West’s story has been well-documented. The Falcons hadn’t played in a regional final in 30 years before winning in Marion on Saturday. This is the first state title game appearance for what has been a winning program more often than not.

Coach Ashley Poole said at Tuesday’s press conference that the Falcons are trying to soak in the adventure. They’re trying to enjoy one of those special moments that doesn’t happen to very many people. With a core group of juniors, the Falcons will have a very good chance to get back to this game again next season, but there are no guarantees in high school sports.

The first tight, pressure-packed game for the Falcons didn’t come until the regional final against previously unbeaten East Lincoln. West overcame a shaky second quarter to pull out that game, 49-42.

West junior forward Lauren Arnold, a 1,000-point scorer, quick junior guard De’Mya Phifer and freshman guard Tiara Thompson, who can make 3s in flurries, average double figures for the Falcons.

Junior 6-footer Emma Clarke, one of the nation’s most highly regarded softball players, and senior Jamecia Huntley, who won a state championship in 2022 as a Salisbury Hornet, combine for lots of rebounds and another 18 points per game.

Juniors Makaylah Tenor and Mya Edwards made big shots in the second half of the East Lincoln game.

If you’re wondering what a Gryphon is, it’s a mythological creature with a bird’s head and a lion’s body. When the city schools in Rocky Mount were integrated in the late 1960s, the Gryphon mascot was chosen by a committee of Black and white students as the perfect creature to represent both the Booker T. Washington Lions and the Rocky Mount Blackbirds.


Salisbury vs. Seaforth

If you’ve never heard of Salisbury’s opponent, that’s not surprising. The Seaforth Hawks are a Cinderella story.

Seaforth opened for the 2021-22 school year near Pittsboro, to help relieve overcrowding at Northwood.

As a new school, Seaforth’s entire enrollment was freshman and sophomores. Now those students are sophomores and juniors.

The team has no seniors and its led by a 30-year-old head coach.

Seaforth fans will have a very short drive to Chapel Hill, which is less than 20 miles away. This almost will be a home game for the Hawks.

Seaforth, which owns a 10-game winning streak, was a No. 5 seed in the East, but hammered the North Pitt team that beat Salisbury in the John Wall Invitational in the regional final.

Seaforth won the regional final by 12, but it really wasn’t that close. Seaforth had a comfortable 17-point lead in the fourth quarter. Seaforth held North Pitt to three points in the first quarter and never lost control.

The standout for Seaforth is Gabby White, a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard who is the leading scorer (15.6 points per game), leading rebounder (8.9) — and leader.

Sophomore Peyton Collins and freshman Katie Leonard are skilled players who regularly score in double figures. Leonard has size at 5-foot-11 and she can shoot it or drive it.

Junior Hannah Ajayi is another notable player for the Hawks. She made several 3-pointers in the regional final.

Salisbury, making its seventh state championship appearance in the last 20 years and seeking its sixth state championship, counters with a familiar group coached by Lakai Brice.

All the starters were integral parts of the team that won the state title in 2022. It’s a battle-tested Salisbury squad — seniors Kyla Bryant, Icesis Nwafor, Mary Morgan and Haley Dalton and junior MaKayla Noble.  Junior Shamya Arnold is the sixth person.

Bryant, headed to North Carolina Central and with nearly 1,800 career points to her credit, is the leading scorer at 22 per game, and primary ball-handler.

Noble is an extreme talent, with size, length and range on her shot. She averages 13 points, but the Hornets may need more than that from her on Saturday.

Nwafor’s 3-point shooting has been important in the postseason run and she also defends well and rebounds well.

Dalton is primarily a shot-blocker and shot-changer and can deny any buckets in the paint as long as she can avoid foul trouble.

Morgan does everything other than score. She helps as a defender, rebounder, ball-handler and passer.

Salisbury has had quicker teams and deeper teams, but this one is unusually cohesive. The Hornets normally play excellent defense (man or zone) and they can shoot. Bryant, Noble and Nwafor can all get on 3-point rolls.

Salisbury has won 15 games in a row. Brice will count on the Hornets’ experience to make the difference against a very talented, but very young opponent.