ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The 101st Ohio Valley Athletic Conference title in St. Clairsville High School history might be the sweetest.
Using a strong second half, the Red Devils erased the demons of their three previous Wheeling Hospital/OVAC Basketball Championship Game appearances, posting a 79-64 victory against second-seeded East Liverpool before a standing-room-only crowd inside the Health and Physical Education Center at Ohio University Eastern.
''We've had teams here before that have been beaten by three really good teams,'' St.C. coach Kim Clifford said of Wheeling Central, Union Local and Magnolia, respectively. ''We were able to get it done, though.''
The title is not only the first for Clifford, but a first for the program, which has been playing basketball since 1908 as a member of the OVAC since the conference's inception.
''This is very special,'' Clifford said. ''We've been second fiddle a lot, but I never gave up hope that (this) would happen.
''This is just a special group, that unlike our other teams, didn't get it done on the floor."
While Clifford did everything he could during the three days leading up to the title game to stress to his young Red Devils that the game was about them, the program and the school, the St. C. players went to the floor with their head coach in mind.
''We definitely wanted this for Coach Clifford,'' said junior Dan Monteroso, who pumped in a game-high 33 points, including 21 in the pivotal second half. ''We, as players, owe him all of the credit.
''He's my favorite coach ever. He's a great man, and we're happy that we were able to win this.''
While the final score was a convincing margin, there were certainly some moments of trepidation before the final buzzer.
The Red Devils went to halftime nursing a 28-25 lead after scoring just nine points in the second quarter.
''(East Liverpool) tightened up their defense in the second (quarter),'' Clifford said. ''We struggled to get into a rhythm and we didn't hit shots that we normally hit.''
The Potters took a lead for one possession in the second half at 35-34 and the game was also knotted at 40-40, but the Red Devils took over from there.
St. C., which connected on 10 3-point goals, closed the third quarter with a 10-2 run and never looked back.
Going into the game, East Liverpool coach Nate Conley was concerned about the Red Devils' shooting ability.
''We've not defended the 3 very well all season,'' Conley admitted.
Junior sharpshooter Riley Carlton scored eight of his 15 in the third, while Monteroso scored seven. Rugged junior forward Joel Giffin, who seldom shoots, let alone scores, buried two medium-range jumpers, which were big during the stretch.
''I know it's a cliche, but this was actually a total team effort,'' Clifford said. ''Adam (Jeffries) hit some big shots early, Riley hit shots, Joel threw two shots in and J-Mar (Jerrid Marhefka) carried us late.''
Marhefka, who hadn't scored, delivered six straight points during the fourth quarter after Marky Thompkins had scored for the Potters to make it a 54-48 contest.
Marhefka's flurry began a 17-0 run, which pushed the margin to 71-48. The run included a steady stream of Monteroso foul shots. He drilled 10 straight in the fourth, made good on 16 of 17 overall.
"We knew (St. Clairsville) was good and Monteroso is very good,'' Conley said. ''We've got some district and OVAC meetings (today), and I am thinking he's got to be the district and OVAC Player of the Year.''
The Potters never threatened in the fourth after Thompson, the talented senior guard, fouled out with nearly 7 minutes to play.
''We were in severe foul trouble,'' Conley said. ''I thought there were some questionable calls. Again, I am not taking anything away from St. Clairsville, but I thought the officials should have let the kids play more because there was never a really good flow to the game.
''But, for us, this is just another regular-season game and now we'll move on to the tournament.''
There's a chance the Red Devils and Potters could meet with a trip to Athens for the Division II regional on the line in a few weeks on the very same OUE floor.
Monteroso's scoring production was complemented by 12 rebounds.
Carlton and Jeffries each had 15 points. Jeffries came up big in the first quarter, drilling a trio of 3s. Marhefka finished with 11.
East Liverpool was led by Zack English and Hayden Cunningham, who went for 15 and 14, respectively. Thompson and post Mow Mow Thompson finished with 12 combined points, which was well below their average.
The Potters (17-3) finished with 38 rebounds and 11 turnovers. St. Clairsville snagged 30 boards and were charted for 10 turnovers.