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Prep Basketball: Relentless West girls open playoffs at home

MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan’s girls basketball team is 25-2, so it’s no longer rational to attribute their success to friendly bounces, friendly rims or friendly officials.
News flash. They’re good.
They’ve won three times against an imposing Hickory Ridge team that is tall, fast and boasts numerous college prospects. After their third come-from-behind win against the Ragin’ Bulls in the South Piedmont Conference Tournament championship game, even the most skeptical non-believer has to admit West has something special.
Prior to the season, the SPC title virtually had been conceded to Hickory Ridge, which returned a host of standouts from a stout team. But West ran the table in the regular season in a 10-team league, and then added the SPC tourney banner.
Coach Ashley Poole says what makes her team formidable isn’t complicated.
“Well, they fight,” Poole said. “They don’t quit. They’ve never quit, and I think that’s the best thing you can say about any team. That’s why they’ve been able to come back so many times.”
A lot of West’s games have been ugly for a quarter or a half, but the object is to be ahead at the end, and the Falcons figure out interesting ways to accomplish that mission.
“I don’t know that I’m the greatest coach in the world, but they always listen to me and they try to do what I tell them,” Poole said with a laugh.
Poole’s had some decent ideas. The Falcons have won 17 in a row since losing back-to-back in the Dale’s Sporting Goods Sam Moir Christmas Classic to North Rowan (in a semifinal) and East Rowan (in the third-place game). The Falcons haven’t lost since folks flipped their calendars to 2016.
West girls basketball history gets overshadowed because the boys program has enjoyed so much success, but the girls also have been special, including six 20-win seasons in the 1990s.
West’s current 17-game winning streak is only the fourth-longest in school history. West won 18 straight in 1992-93 and 1996-97 and took 19 straight in 1993-94.
The 1992-93 team led by Andrea Grissett and Wendy Hampton Wilson (Poole’s assistant) set the school record with 26 victories.
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The Falcons, seeded fourth in the 3A West bracket, will be going for win No. 26 tonight at home at 7 p.m. in a first-round playoff game against Concord Jay M. Robinson,
That matchup is good news and bad news. Seeded 29th, Robinson was only the sixth-place team in the SPC, but the young Bulldogs are quick and they put up a fight recently against West in Mount Ulla. The final was 55-51. It could’ve gone either way.
“Playing a team from our league for the third time, I’ve got mixed emotions about it,” Poole said. “They know us well and we know them well, and it was only a four-point game last time. The advantage is we’re not spending time trying to get a scouting report on a new opponent. We’ll watch film, we’ll try to correct a few things from the last Robinson game, and we’ll go play.”
The general perception is that West has come out of nowhere to be the sixth-ranked team in 3A. That’s because West was 10-14 last season and tied for fifth in the SPC. The season before that — Poole’s first season at the helm — the Falcons were 7-18.
“We’ve been working three years to get to where we are now,” Poole said. “I knew this summer that I liked this team. I told people we were going to be good. They thought I was a little bit crazy.”
Three Falcons have been around forever. Senior guard Khaila Hall and senior forward Shanice Miller have been varsity fixtures for four years. Senior guard Taylor Martin played jayvee as a freshman, but she’s now in her third year as a starter.
The team took a leap this season due to the addition of sophomore post player Egypt Alexander (a transfer from North Rowan) and the arrival of freshman guard Mary Sobataka.
Alexander and Sobataka can score, and that’s altered Hall’s role dramatically. She scored 15.7 points per game as a junior. She’s averaging 9.7 this year. She hasn’t always shot well, but she still was named SPC Player of the Year because of her all-round contributions.
Hall is competitive, explosive and strong.
“Khaila defends, she passes, she handles the ball, she does everything well,” Poole said. “No one can control a game like she does.”
If Hall is the Falcons’ brain, the 5-foot Martin (11.6 ppg.) is the heart. Martin looks like she should be selling Girl Scout cookies in front of Walgreen’s, but she wins games with non-stop hustle. She’s a high-percentage 3-point shooter and is never afraid to launch the big shot.
Alexander (17.2 ppg.) is an undersized paint player at 5-8, but the lefty scores like she’s 6-2. She gets layups by running the floor, on post-ups, and by being active on stickbacks.
Sobataka (9.8 ppg.) is another 3-point option and she makes acrobatic shots in the lane and on the break. There are so many good freshmen in the county (South’s Janiya Downs, Salisbury’s Bryanna Troutman, Carson’s McKenzie Gadson) that Sobataka hasn’t gotten much hype, but she has a large future. She scored 21 against Hickory Ridge last week.
Miller (6.3 ppg.) is a perfect role player, defending hard and chasing down boards.
West gets help from the bench if it runs into foul trouble. Guard Shyann Vaughters isn’t shy at all and can provide instant offense. Kia Pharr supplies height when West battles taller teams.
And come to think of it, almost everyone is taller than West.
Still this is a crew that has gone 13-0 at home, and as long as the Falcons keep finding ways to win, they are assured of additional home games. If they win tonight, they’ll be back in Mount Ulla on Thursday. If they prevail Thursday, they’ll host a third-round game on Saturday.
“Our senior leadership has been awesome,” Poole said. “Everyone wants to keep it going.”

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