Central Heading Back to States
Gainer tallies 26 points in first half
WHEELING–Eden Gainer thought her season was over.
The Wheeling Central sophomore tore her labrum early in the campaign and was forced to sit out eight games.
Through all the pain, she continued to work toward her goal of getting back on the court with her teammates.
Not only did she reach her goal, she surpassed it.
On Wednesday, the 5-foot-6 sharpshooter played her third game since returning from the shoulder injury and put on a performance even her coach couldn’t believe.
Gainer brought the crowd to its feet with six 3-pointers in the first half, while netting a game-high 26 points to lead the Maroon Knights to a Class A Region One title with a dominating 88-41 win over Ritchie County on Coach Skip Prosser Court to advance to the state tournament in Charleston.
“I have to tell you, I was surprised,” Central coach Penn Kurtz said. “She worked so hard to get back to this point. Even when she was out rehabbing her shoulder, she never missed a practice. She was working out and shooting 3’s with her left hand and making them.
“Most players with that injury aren’t going to play but she was relentless at rehabbing that shoulder so she could be ready to play.”
Gainer dropped her first trey of the game just moments into the action on her way to 15 points in the opening quarter and added 11 more in the second stanza, showing no signs of pain.
“My teammates were giving me good passes and my shot was on,” Gainer said. “I just felt it.
“It was a tough process and it took forever. I just wanted to play again. I had a lot of therapy and I was even thinking my season might be over in the beginning when I first tore it but I’m so glad to be back.
“I can’t wait to be back at states and hopefully we will get a ring.”
Wheeling Central (22-2) took control from the opening tip as it reeled off a 9-0 run in the first 1:39, securing four of those points off of turnovers.
Following a Ritchie County timeout, the Rebels were able to keep the deficit at a reasonable 21-10 margin with 3:10 left in the first.
However, that margin grew larger when Kurtz’s unit exploded on a 17-0 run over the next 6:25 to soften the cushion to 38-10 midway through the second.
Buckets continued to fall for the Knights, who finished the half on an incredible 20-8 run, which included a 16-0 spurt, to secure a 58-18 advantage going into the locker room.
Along with Gainer’s outstanding first half, senior Taylor Duplaga chipped in with 18 points of her own to help the cause.
The Central defense was electric as well, forcing 14 turnovers in the first half alone and finishing with 25.
“We wanted to put pressure on them early because we felt that we had an advantage there,” Kurtz said. “When you have guards like Taylor (Duplaga), Eden (Gainer) and Riley (Bennington), they just get after the ball. Then, with Kaylee Reinbeau underneath and Hannah White and we bring Kaitlyn Ferns and Riley Blaha in, it puts a lot of pressure on other teams.”
Reinbeau took over in the third period as she paced the Knights with 12 points to extend the lead to 77-30 entering the fourth, well on their way to a regional title.
“We’ve been working the last couple of weeks on executing our offense,” Kurtz said. “We did that to a T (Wednesday). We got open shots and then we made the shots. That might be the best first half that we have played all year.”
White delivered eight points to help get the Knights to the state tournament for the second year in a row.
“There are some good teams down at states,” Kurtz said. “I told them (Wednesday) we have to get better. It’s hard to imagine we could play better but I think we can. I thought we gave up too many offensive rebounds, Kaylee got in foul trouble and we have to work that out so we can keep everybody on the floor.”
Abi Haught led Ritchie County (12-13) with 18 points, followed by Cassie Tallman’s 15.
“Wheeling Central is fast, they can shoot it and they can drive,” Ritchie County coach David McCullough said. “When you have Duplaga and Gainer both going off, you can’t stop them.
“Defensively, we thought we’d zone them up but Gainer was able to hit everything she was taking. We worked on it but we came in here expecting to lose and that’s what happens.
“We made one 3-pointer (Wednesday) and we don’t have a great 3-point shooting team, so we can’t rely on that and we did (Wednesday). We had to drive and that’s what killed us.”
Wheeling Central will face Trinity (13-12) at 1 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the state tournament.