WHEELING - Perhaps the pendulum swung over to Wheeling Central's favor shortly after the Maroon Knight's 97-92 loss to Linsly Jan. 24.
"For us the focus has always been on defense," Coach Mel Stephens said. "For whatever reason, we weren't conveying that message to the kids. I think after we gave up 97 points, on a night where we had two kids combine for 71 points (Chase Harler and David Park) the kids started to realize that maybe there was something to this defense we kept preaching about."
Since the sermon was finally heard, the Maroon Knights have rolled off 11 straight wins, and have averaged giving up 54.5 points per game.
Wheeling Central’s Chase Harler looks to lead the Knights to a state title.
The most they have surrendered was 65, in back to back victories against Wellsville in the OVAC Class 2A championship game and then in the rematch at Linsly.
Wheeling Central (19-3) opens Class A, Region One, Section One play tonight against Madonna at 7 p.m. in East Wheeling.
The Maroon Knights, which elevated to the top position in the final Associated Press poll of the year Monday, enter the game as the No. 1 seed in Region 1.
No need to convince Madonna coach George Vargo.
"I think they are the No. 1 team in the state," Vargo said. "They are typically a team that plays a very aggressive man defense, up in your face, and they are strong. They get in the weight room. Like the saying goes, defense wins championships. That is a reason they have been so successful. When you match that defense with players like Harler and Park and (Alonzo) Manns and you get shooters hitting 3s off the bench, it's a hard matchup."
It is for anyone.
Harler and Park are the leaders. Harler, a sophomore, is averaging 20.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, and Park, a senior, checks in with a double-double average of 17.1 points and 11 rebounds per game. Manns, also a senior, averages 12.4 points and 5.7 rebounds. Boyd Bibey comes off the bench as a formidable 3-point shooter who has a few double-digit games to his credit.
"We always expect Park and Harler to get their points," Stephens said. "What we need is someone like Alonzo or Boyd Bibey to step up and have productive games. If we get that, we generally have good success."
Madonna (13-8) is led by Ross Comis, who is averaging about 21 points per game.
"We've got to play our A game," Vargo said. "We can't make the mistakes we have made all season. We have to make our open shots, we have to rebound, we have to make our free throws and we have to handle their offensive weapons. They are a good team. We hope Ross can get his points and then we get some secondary scoring from (Nick) Mazur, (Josh) Martin, (Nate) Guio or (Joey) Ewusiak. If we can do that, we can make the game competitive and take our chances."
One factor in the game is that it is just Central's second game in over two weeks.
"Our schedule has been like that," Stephens said. "It seems like we play three, four games and then when the tournament rolls around, everything slows down. We try to keep them fresh, give them some time off and realize that these are the games that matter. We had a real good run to end the season but now it all starts again. Everybody is 0-0 and it's a new season."
Bishop Donahue (16-6) hosts Magnolia (17-6) in a game matching two Class A top 10 teams (Magnolia 5, Bishop Donahue 10).
The two are familiar with one another, playing twice late in the season in a 5-day span, with Bishop Donahue winning at Magnolia (87-73) and Magnolia winning at Bishop (61-55).
The game will tip off at 7 p.m. at John Marshall Fieldhouse.
"There aren't any secrets" Bishop Donahue coach Tom Wise said.
Both teams will be at full strength.
Magnolia was without Spencer Campbell in the last matchup between the two schools, but Preston Boswell made up for it with a 38-point effort. Boswell then sat out the last two games, a regular-season finale with Madonna and a first-round victory against Hundred Saturday and Campbell responded by averaging 21.5 in those two games.
"We shot 33 percent from the floor in that game and 18 from 3," Wise said. "Defensively, I thought we played pretty well. I think the fact that they didn't have Campbell hurt us because Boswell took things on his shoulders and he was unconcious."
Bishop welcomed back Josh Miller to the lineup. The junior, who averaged double figures last year, had been limited this season, first by a football injury and then by an ankle ailment.
He returned and played about a quarter-and-a-half in a victory against St. Marys and had eight points and two rebounds.
"He is a pretty big kid," Magnolia coach Dave Tallman said. "That will give them some more size to throw at us. I feel pretty good about us getting back to health. Hopefully we can get Preston back and then we will be better from a depth standpoint. I think we are both getting back to health at the right time."
The game was moved to John Marshall Field House when the coaches agreed to go to a bigger venue late last weekend.
Both had success on neutral floors. Magnolia is undefeated in opponents gyms (10-0) and 2-2 at neutral sites.
Bishop Donahue is 2-1 at neutral sites.
"It's the rubber match, winner take all," Tallman said. "It doesn't get any bigger than this."
Magnolia is led by Boswell, who is averaging 25 points per game and he has scored over 30 in his last three games. Campbell averages about 16 and Zach Willhoite 12.5.
For Bishop Donahue, Chaice Truex is averaging a double-double (18.1 points and 12.1 rebounds), Bryce Jones 12.5 points and freshman Taylor Straughn 10.5 points per game. Jesse Padlow averages 9.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.2 steals. Lavonte Hampton averages 8.0 points and 3.9 rebounds.
The winners will meet at 7 p.m. Friday for the Class A, Region One, Section One title at Brooke High School.