ST. CLAIRSVILLE - For the first time in school history, St. Clairsville is among the quartet of teams that will make their way to the Convo on the campus of Ohio University in Athens for the OHSAA's Division II Regional Tournament.
The Red Devils (21-2) earned their trip by virtue of pulling away from state-ranked East Liverpool for a 70-53 victory before a huge, rambunctious crowd inside the Health and Physical Education Center on the campus of Ohio University Eastern on Thursday night.
''This is really special,'' said St. C. coach Kim Clifford, who proudly snipped the last two cords of the net to a loud applause from the droves of St. C. fans in attendance. ''This is nice, but like our kids said in the locker room, we'd like to win at least one more, two more, three more and four more. And that's the approach we're going to take.
PHOTO BY Paul Krajnyak
St. Clairsville’s Riley Carlton (24) drives to the basket against an East Liverpool defender.
''This is a special group of kids that loves basketball and they're not ready to quit playing.''
St. Clairsville, which was 0-5 in its previous district title-game appearances under Clifford's watch, will tangle with the winner of tonight's contest between Circleville and Chillicothe.
The Red Devils simply have had the Potters' number when it comes to achieving firsts for the basketball program in title games. Almost three weeks ago, St. C. took down the Potters (19-4) on the same OUE court for its first OVAC crown, using a similar game plan.
''St. Clairsville is a good team,'' East Liverpool coach Nate Conley said. ''We struggled early, but we fought back. Each time we did, St. C. hit big jump shots.''
As they did in the meeting last month, the Red Devils shot out of the gates quickly thanks to the play of junior all-stater Dan Monteroso, who showed again why he was voted Division II Eastern District Player of the Year.
Monteroso scored 15 of his game-high 29 points in the first quarter and did so in a plethora of ways. He drilled a 3, shot the pull up, threw down on a Potters defender and then cashed 4-of-4 at the line. All of that helped fuel a St. C. 22-13 lead after one.
The Potters, however, didn't wilt. They closed within one, 32-31, at halftime thanks to a 9-1 run to end the second.
Senior Mow Mow Thompson, who led the Potters with 18 points and 11 rebounds, scored six in the second and Brian Beverly notched five.
At the break, Clifford ''challenged'' a few of his players and they promptly responded.
The message came across loud and clear and junior ace Riley Carlton responded.
Carlton, who had just one point at halftime, scored eight and buried two critical 3s. He finished with 19 points.
East Liverpool had mounted a mini run, getting within one at 44-43 with less than a minute to go in the third. Junior Jerrid Marhefka, who scored 10 points, connected on a triple from the left corner, which hit the front of rim, bounced straight up in the air and tickled the twine for St. Clairsville.
After a Potters turnover, Carlton buried maybe the biggest shot of the game when he dialed long distance from the top of the key.
''That's kind of been our M.O. all season,'' Clifford said. ''We get out quick, we settle in, the other team settles in and comes back. But we've been pretty consistent at making our run and getting away from them again.''
East Liverpool showed a bit more fight as Seth Talbott buried a 3 to begin the fourth quarter. However, Monteroso, who was held scoreless in the third, found a crease and connected on a conventional three-point play, stretching it back to seven and Liverpool got no closer.
''Monteroso is the real deal,'' Conley said. ''I thought (at the end of the third), it should have been our ball and we could have held for the last shot. That was a big turning point after they hit two 3s. We made our runs, but they answered each time.''
The Red Devils backcourt of Monteroso and Carlton teamed for 17 in the fourth, including 12 from the line.
As the fouls mounted, so did the Potters' frustration. Three East Liverpool players were whistled for technical fouls in the game's wanning moments.
St. C. finished the fourth quarter 13 of 20 from the line.
''It was an emotional night,'' Conley said. ''They had 31 foul shots and we shot eight, which is outrageous if you ask me, especially when you've got two teams playing as hard we were.''
Adam Jeffries donated six points and five rebounds. Sophomore Joel Giffin added just two points, but he yanked down eight boards and did yeoman's work on Thompson on the interior.
Christian Kyle complemented Thompson's production with 17 points. Senior standout Marky Thompkins added seven points for the Potters.