CHARLESTON - With starters Audra Clark and Dani Moore having fouled out late in the fourth quarter of Friday morning's West Virginia Class A state semifinal against Wheeling Central, St. Marys coach Howard Meeks challenged his bench to respond.
It did, in a big way.
Haley Everett's shot with less than a minute remaining gave the Blue Devils the lead and Ashley Hall's free throws and eight points down the stretch sealed it as St. Marys hung on for a 45-43 victory inside the Civic Center Coliseum.
Wheeling Central’s Regan Blaha, left drives into the offensive zone past the defense of St. Marys’ Ashley Hall during their semifinal game on Friday morning.
The Blue Devils, the No. 3 seed, will battle top seed Huntington St. Joe for the championship at noon today. The Irish, playing for their fifth straight championship, throttled Tucker County, 63-31, in their semifinal.
''Wow, what a game!'' an emotional Meeks said.
It was the second thrilling game in as many days between the two schools. Wheeling Central's boys earned a berth in next week's state tournament by edging St. Marys on the road on Friday night.
''I think their spirit was with us a little bit (Friday),'' Meeks said.
It wasn't the prettiest game in the tournament, but it had plenty of dramatics, especially during the fourth quarter. The Maroon Knights (22-5) took a four-point lead, 33-29, on Colleen McCormick's runner off the glass with 4:35 remaining.
The Blue Devils (25-1, with the lone loss coming to Wheeling Central) responded with a turnaround shot by Kendra Walker to make the score 33-31. Then, Moore came up with a steal in the backcourt and raced in for a layup that tied the game at 33-33.
McCormick missed on Central's ensuing possession and a scrum resulted in a jump ball with the arrow pointing in St. Marys' direction.
Hall, a freshman who was 0-for-6 in the Blue Devils' quarterfinal victory against Tygarts Valley, canned a baseline jumper that gave her team the lead, 35-33, with 3:03 left.
With 2:46 remaining, McCormick hit a pair of free throws tying the score at 35-35. Emily Bucon was fouled a short time later and, too, made two free throws that gave Central the lead again, 37-35.
The Blue Devils responded with a Walker hook with 2:10 left that knotted the score again, 37-37.
Later, with score tied, 39-39, Everett caught a pass to left of the basket. She lost the handle and a scrum ensued. Everett came out with the ball and put in a shot over Bucon that gave St. Marys the lead, 41-39, with 40.9 seconds left.
''By golly, if she never scores another basket that was a huge one right there,'' Meeks said.
St. Marys' lead swelled to four, 43-39, when Hall stepped to line and hit what was the first of four straight free throws with 28 ticks showing.
A Bucon layup cut the lead to two, 43-41, but Hall hit two free throws again to push the lead back to four, 45-41.
McCormick hit two free throws with 1.6 seconds left to make the score 45-43.
St. Marys turned it over on the inbounds leaving the Maroon Knights with one last shot with .3 seconds left. But McCormick's heave was off the mark.
''We knew it was going to be a tough ballgame,'' Wheeling Central coach Penn Kurtz said. ''It always is with St. Marys.''
The Maroon Knights scored 15 fourth-quarter points, but hit only two field goals. For the game, Central was 12 of 47 from the field (25.5 percent).
''They took a lot of things away from us,'' Kurtz said. ''They made us work for every shot.''
Kurtz said he wasn't surprised Walker, who finished with 14 points and 16 rebounds, took control down the stretch.
''We knew where they were going with the ball, we just couldn't stop it,'' he said.
Bucon and McCormick finished their prep careers in strong fashion. Bucon had 19 points, with McCormick netting 14.