CHARLESTON - Many people around the state were already handing Huntington St. Joseph the West Virginia Class A championship before the sectional tournament started.
For the most of the tournament, it looked like a foregone conclusion.
Wheeling Central had no intention of laying down and had a chance to tie late, but Mychal Johnson showed why she has her pick of colleges with a key steal and basket - plus a foul shot - that all but sealed a fourth straight championship for the Irish with a 57-49 victory against the Maroon Knights on Saturday in the Class A championship game at the Charleston Civic Center.
Saint Joseph’s Asia Petite (31) drives against Wheeling Central’s Colleen McCormick (3) on Saturday.
After an Irish turnover, Wheeling Central (24-4) trailed 52-49 with 50 seconds to go. After a couple passes, Bri Robbins ended up with the ball and stopped her dribble at the top of the key.
The senior tried to get a pass off to Emily Bucon but Johnson stepped in front and raced the other way.
She missed the layup, but got the rebound and the putback. Robbins fouled her - her fifth foul to end her senior season and Maroon Knights career.
Johnson made the free throw.
On the next Wheeling Central possession, Cassie Sorge, who possibly saved her best game for last with 19 points, had a miscommunication with Bucon and threw the ball out of bounds.
Johnson put the nail in the Wheeling Central coffin with two free throws.
"She picked up her dribble and we are supposed to deny the passes when someone picks up their dribble," Johnson said. "I knew I had 25 (Bucon) and when I saw the ball coming, I put my hand in there and got the steal.
"(After I missed the layup), I knew I had to get the ball. I didn't know I was going to miss it but that happens. I was confident in my free-throw shooting."
The consecutive turnovers were the 15th and 16th for Wheeling Central, an uncharacteristic stat for one of the more-disciplined teams in the state.
"We were just going to try to run the offense and take the first available shot," Wheeling Central coach Penn Kurtz said. "If we had something going to the basket, great. If we had an open look at a 3, we would take it. There was so much time left and 50 seconds is a long time to go.
"Unforced errors and it happens. This is a big game and a lot of pressure. These are young high school girls and not professional athletes. But they sure played hard and I am really, really proud of them."
Wheeling Central never led but tied it at 30-30 midway through the third quarter on a layup by Sorge.
St. Joe (20-6) responded with a 3-pointer by Johnson.
Wheeling Central came back with a jumper by Sorge to cut it to one before the Irish answered with a 17-7 run to go into the fourth quarter up 50-39, their biggest lead.
Wheeling Central's Colleen McCormick finally started to get things going with her first two baskets. Bucon hit a free throw and Robbins added two to cut the lead to 50-47.
Robbins looked to have a clean steal on the next Irish possession, but was called for a foul on Griffin Dempsey (another St. Joe player getting attention from Division I schools). Dempsey made both free throws, the first points of the quarter for St. Joe, to push it back to a two-possession game with 2:27 on the clock.
Bucon missed a 3 but followed her shot and was true on a layup. She stripped Johnson at the other end to give Wheeling Central the ball and a chance to tie.
"We struggled in the fourth quarter and it was kinda eerie remembering back four years when we made zero field goals and scored three points and Wheeling Central came storming back for a victory (in the 2008 title game)," St. Joe coach Shannon Lewis said. "Things were going similar in the manners but we got the big field goal off Mychal's steal and hit some free throws down the stretch.
"We beat a tremendous basketball team that is a very well-coached. (Sorge) was fabulous and (Bucon) really stepped up in the second half. We knew it was going to be a heckuva game and we knew they were gonna have people planted in the paint to try to stop our penetration. We called out a play and it seemed like they were waiting on it.
"Still, I had confidence in this group. They are really young but they are warriors and they stepped up."
Bucon had 18 points for the Maroon Knights. Johnson paced the Irish with 22 points and 13 rebounds and Dempsey scored 14.
Wheeling Central loses a good group of seniors in Sorge, Robbins, Emily Wizba, Ashley Martin, Julia Palmer, and Angela Sparachane. Fortunately for Kurtz, a strong nucleus led by McCormick and Bucon return.
He will need it.
St. Joe starts four sophomores and a freshman and look to be heavy favorites in the coming years to add to its trophy total.
"We will work on being a better team and that's one thing we always pride ourselves on," Kurtz said. "Other teams may have more talented players but we will work all summer long on being better defensively, working together on the offensive end, and then bring some of those younger players along and see if they can't help these two (McCormick and Bucon)."
Bucon, Sorge, and McCormick represented Wheeling Central on the All-Tournament team, while Johnson, Dempsey, and Asia Petitte were the Irish players selected. Also named were Williamstown's Liz Flowers and Tucker County's Caitlin Maxwell.