High school girls basketball: West hits the boards, runs the table

Published 1:33 am Sunday, March 12, 2023


Lauren Arnold, Photo by Chris Krieg, CK Photography

By Mike London

RALEIGH — Seriously? Sixty rebounds.

That’s what the stat sheet revealed following West Rowan’s 60-50 victory over Rocky Mount in the 3A girls basketball state championship game played on Saturday afternoon at Reynolds Coliseum.

MVP Lauren Arnold, Most Outstanding Player Tiara Thompson and De’Mya Phifer racked up double-doubles for the Falcons.

Rebounds may never have been so plentiful in a state title game. Both teams missed 40 field-goal attempts. Arnold corralled 16 of those misses, while Phifer and Thompson grabbed 10 apiece.

“Rebounding is  boxing out and it’s effort and it’s all about who wants it,” West coach Ashley Poole said. “We brought it. We hit the boards hard.”

Click here to see a video of the West team being honored and cutting down the net.

West turned the ball over 24 times and missed 11 of 15 free throws. Those negatives could have been costly, even fatal, but they weren’t.

Not with 60 rebounds. That was the stat that mattered. West smashed Rocky Mount on the boards, 60-36.

The bottom line was a state championship, the first for West’s program and the crowning moment in Poole’s 10 seasons at the helm.

The victory over the Gryphons (30-2) also gave West an immaculate season. The Falcons’ 31-0 record ties the 2003–04 Salisbury Hornets for the most victories by a Rowan girls program without tasting defeat.

The only other unblemished seasons that have been recorded were a 29-0 by Salisbury in 2009-2010 and a 19-0 by the Carson Cougars, who were perfect in the shortened COVID season of 2021.

With Salisbury going back to back in 2022 and 2023, three different Rowan girls programs have won four titles in a three-season stretch. That’s a remarkable feat.

It was an utterly dominant 2022-23 season by the Falcons in terms of points scored and points allowed. Twenty-nine of their victories were by 23 or more points and several were historic routs. The 49-42 win against East Lincoln in the regional final was the lone single-digit margin for the Falcons.

“We got on a championship  path in June, we knew we’d be special and all the girls did was work and work and work,” Poole said. “They never let up. They kept pushing each other.”

West began the game like it would win 100-0. Rocky Mount’s star Caroline Thiel, a Charlotte signee, started cold, and the Falcons jumped out to an 11-0 lead.

But then Rocky Mount, which had rallied to beat Cape Fear in its regional final, got a string of layups to get back to 11-all early in the second quarter. That was the most dangerous time of the game for West, really the only dangerous time.

West needed a bucket badly to change the flow. Arnold got it from long range.

That critical shot triggered a 10-0 run that included an extraordinary play on a West fast break. Makaylah Tenor took a pass on the move, but was too far underneath to shoot and her momentum was taking her out of bounds. Without really catching the ball, she alertly slapped a perfect pass behind her to a trailing Phifer, who cashed in for a three-point play.

Moments later, Thompson scored off an offensive rebound, and the Falcons led 21-11. They wouldn’t look back.

West took a 34-20 lead at halftime. Arnold already had a double-double by halftime.

Thiel, who finished with 20 points on 8-for-21 shooting, came on strong in the second half, made some tough shots in the lane, and tried to carry Rocky Mount back into it, but the Gryphons weren’t getting consistent offense from anyone else, except for Shileyia Williams, who scored 12.

Tenor splashed a 3-pointer for a 47-33 West lead. A 3-pointer by Arnold, her third one, gave the Falcons a 51-35 lead early in the fourth quarter, their biggest of the day.

Phifer had some driving buckets, and West was able to maintain at least a nine-point lead down the stretch.

Rocky Mount had a rough shooting day — 32 percent from the field and 1-for-10 from 3. That made it tough to mount a comeback.

West shot 38.2 percent. West has turned defense into offense well all season and got 27 points off Rocky Mount turnovers.

Arnold scored 15 points. Thompson had 15 points and four steals. Phifer scored 12.

Emma Clarke, who received the sportsmanship award for West prior to the game, had eight points and seven rebounds. Clarke and Jamecia Huntley had three blocks each. Huntley had five rebounds.

“It was one game at a time for 31 games and we never took any game for granted,” Poole said. “We prepared hard for every game and today was no different.”

Rocky Mount    9     11    15    15    — 50

West Rowan     11    23    13    13    — 60

Rocky Mount — Thiel 20, Williams 12, Graham 5, Jones 4, Powell 4, Mitchell 2, Battle 2, Evans 1.

W. Rowan —  Arnold 15, Thompson 15, Phifer 12, Clarke 8, Tenor 5, Huntley 3, Edwards 2.



Photo gallery from state title games here: https://www.salisburypost.com/2023/03/13/photo-gallery-west-salisbury-claim-girls-basketball-state-titles/