By TRACY WATSON
For The Intelligencer
WHEELING – For two quarters Tuesday night Paden City gave powerful Wheeling Central its best shot, leading the Maroon Knights by seven at the end of one and by three at the half.
In the end, however, there were two main factors that led to the demise of Coach Fred King’s Wildcats during the final two quarters, fatigue was one and the other came in the form of Wheeling Central sophomore sensation Chase Harler.
Harler, who sat out four minutes of the first quarter with two fouls and had just six points at the half, played like a man possessed during the final 16 minutes and the weary Paden City starters could do nothing to stop him.
In all, Harler scored 13 of his game-high 26 points in the third quarter, the final four coming on a pair of back-to-back slam dunks that ignited both his teammates and the crowd and the streaking Maroon Knights pulled away for a 69-51 victory at their East Wheeling gym.
The win, the 10th in a row for Coach Mel Stephens’ squad, was not easy early on as everything seemed to be going the Wildcats’ way.
Junior Zach Heasley scored 11 of his 16 points in the first quarter and Paden City, with Harler on the bench with two fouls, led 20-13 after the initial eight minutes.
Kennedy Cain dropped in six of his team-high 18 in the second, a quarter in which Central senior standout David Park took a nasty fall to the court trying to get a charge call and ended up sitting out half the period. That all helped lead to a 29-26 Paden City advantage at the break.
With Park returning to the floor and Harler catching fire, and not getting whistled for another foul the rest of the way, the Maroon Knights (18-3) were not going to let this one get away.
Harler made nine of his 11 shots in the second half, Park scored all eight of his points and pulled down five of his eight rebounds and the Wildcats, whose starters played the entire game with the exception of 20 seconds, began wearing down.
With Harler throwing down a slam after a steal with a minute to go in the third and then adding another at the 25 second mark after a long rebound from Park, Wheeling Central led 48-43 after three.
Paden City was still within six with 7:10 to play, but a closing 18-6 spurt was more than the tired ‘Cats could handle.
“Chase doing what he did in the third quarter was the difference,” Stephens said. “He had a couple of big baskets early in the quarter and then those back-to-back dunks really got everyone energized.
“I am not going to make excuses, but it is tough to bounce back after games against teams like Wellsville and Linsly, but this was a Class A regional opponent and we felt like this one was every bit as big as those two.
“Paden City is a good team and they really schooled us a little on those back-cuts they do, but I think they got tired at the end. We warned the kids that they aren’t going to see many teams that do that as well as they do.
“And with Chase in foul trouble and David hurting, we have told the kids all year that there is going to come a time with foul trouble and injuries that we were going to need people to step up. I felt like Jonathan Droginske did a solid job on defense coming off the bench and really helped settle things down.”
Alonzo Manns, who had another solid night inside, finished with 15 points for the Maroon Knights, who were out-rebounded in the first half but finished with a 32-27 edge off the glass in the end. Central also turned the ball over only twice, both times with reserves in during the final minute of play.
Sophomore Luke Cooper backed Cain and Heasley with 11 points.
“Wheeling Central is a very good basketball team and we played them nine on five and went toe-to-toe with them for three quarters,” King said. “In the end the deciding factor was named Chase Harler.
“Those two dunks he had really changed things up. And I really don’t think my kids did a poor job on the floor, he just decided to play in the second half and when he does that, look out.
“I think we forced a couple of shots in the third quarter and turned the ball over a couple of times and all of a sudden a three-point deficit becomes 10. But I give all the praise to my kids, they are very upset right now about this loss and it shows that they care about this. Central is a good team, but my kids didn’t come here worshiping them.
“This is a tough place to play. They have more banners in this place over the last 10 years than we have had kids at Paden City. Right now I am just a very proud coach.”