WHEELING - Although junior forward Colleen McCormick had a double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds, it was the Wheeling Central Catholic pressure defense that helped turn the game in the Maroon Knights' favor against visiting River during Monday night's OVAC Class 2A basketball semifinal.
Trailing 23-15 after struggling through the first half, Central's half-court trap forced the Pilots into nine third-quarter turnovers that paved the way for the Knights' hard-earned 48-41 victory.
Once in the lead, Coach Penn Kurtz' ssecond-ranked West Virginia Class A power buried 11 of 13 free throws in the fourth quarter and was 17 of 21 overall from the line while racking up victory No. 17 against just three setbacks.
The Maroon Knights next will face top-seeded Shadyside for third time this season at 12:15 p.m. Saturday with the OVAC championship on the line at Ohio University Eastern.
Two of Wheeling Central's losses this winter have come at the hands of the Tigers.
''The thing that defines Shadyside is their team play," Kurtz said. ''They play so well together and execute everything well. We are going to have to try and match their style a little bit if we want to play with them.
''We'll find out if we are the 32-5 team that trailed Shadyside the last time we played or the team that outscored them 49-30 the rest of the game."
The Maroon Knights wound up losing that contest, 62-54.
Central's hopes of getting that third opportunity against the Tigers nearly blew up in its face during the first half against a 10-9 River team that had visions of making it to the championship round.
''This was one of the best efforts we've had certainly the most emotion we played with all season," Pilots coach Rick Isaly said.
He is hoping his girls can regain their stride after starting the season with a 7-2 record before losing seven of their last 10 game.
River entered the OVAC contest with an well-designed triangle-and-2 defense that was looking to contain the Maroon Knights' main offensive weapons McCormick and Emily Bucon.
''We wanted to make some other people step up for them and it worked for a while," Isaly said. ''But in that third quarter we kept turning the ball over and our two post players got in foul trouble playing against McCormick. Central also drained their foul shots and that killed us."
The Pilots' defensive scheme gave the hosts plenty of problems during the opening half. Bucon was limited to just a pair of shots and four points the first two quarters. The Maroon Knights cashed just five of their first 22 field goal attempts and trailed by 11 points on three occasions. River, sparked by standout junior Cassidy McCullough, who scored 11 of her 17 points in the first half, probably should have left the floor at the break with at least a double-figure advantage.
However, with just a couple of ticks on the clock, Central's Bri Robbins left fly from with a long-distance attempt at a 3-pointer from WNBA range and the ball swished cleanly through the cords cutting the deficit to 23-15.
''We kind of let them control the tempo and run their offense during the first half," Kurtz said. ''They had a nice game plan and did a pretty good job against Colleen and Emily. We finally got Julia (Palmer) to find some open spots and she made some big shots for us."
Palmer broke open at the foul line and knocked down her first bucket, then scored again with a soft shot along the baseline, pulling Central to within 27-21 midway through the third quarter.
Bucon, who scored six of her 10 points in that quarter, cashed two free throws but McCullough's goal restored River's six-point lead with her runner. The Knights finally caught up at 29-29 on a spin move by Bucon and then gained the lead heading into the final 8 minutes when Sorge's entry pass led to a McCormick layup.
The score was tied twice early in the fourth quarter before Robbins turned a steal and drive to the basket for a four-point play and a 37-33 Central lead. After knocking the ball loose at midcourt, she drove in to score the layup and was awarded two shots when the Pilots were called for an intentional foul.
Robbins swished both free throws, completing the four-point play and River got no closer than three points the rest of the way. With the score at 39-36 after another McCullough bucket on a nice move to the rim, Robbins found McCormick open for a easy one off the glass. McCormick would then finish off an eight-point fourth quarter with another floater and four straight free throws to seal the deal.
''We need to get more consistent on offense,"Kurtz stressed. ''We stood around a lot and River's defense made it easy to get out of sync. We weren't comfortable with what they were doing," Kurtz said.
Lakan Ramsay backed McCullough's double-digit effort for the Pilots with 11 points. Leslie Young, River's main inside defender, spent most of the night on the bench with foul problems and was limited to just two points. Emile Weaver had five points and collected a game-high 12 rebounds.