WHEELING - Entering the 2011-2012 season with some high expectations, the Wheeling Central girls' basketball team lived up to its advance billing Friday night on the home floor.
With their three returning leaders combining for 46 points, the Maroon Knights trailed just once at the outset of the game, took the lead for keeps at 3-2 on junior Colleen McCormick's three-point play and never looked back in knocking off a tough, physical Tucker County club, 67-52.
Emily Bucon scored 21 points, while McCormick fired in 11 and Cassie Sorge added 10 points to spark the Central offense that shot 50 percent from the floor (23 of 46).
''It was a good opening test," Central coach Penn Kurtz said. ''Tucker County's strong inside and came in here ready to play. We got our guards in foul trouble in the first half and that really slowed us down. Other than that, I'm mostly pleased."
The Mountain Lions were led by a couple of impressive front-line performers. Amber Evans netted 17 points while Caitlin Maxwell added 15, most of their scoring coming from underneath.
Central more than held its own on the glass as both teams finished with 30 rebounds. The main sticking point for Kurtz afterward was the 22 turnovers his team committed, many of which came on unforced errors.
''We had too many turnovers for sure," Kurtz said. ''Especially when we call timeout and then throw the ball away when we put it back in play. Even though we have a lot of experience, two of our seniors never started a game before. I thought they did pretty well for their first start."
Central built a 17-7 lead in the opening quarter as Bucon started quickly with eight points, all three of her baskets coming in transition. Sorge and Ashley Martin delivered slick assists passes Bucon's way but the quick-footed wing also converted a layup with her coast-to-coast drive after a steal.
The Maroon Knights increased the advantage to 12 twice in the second quarter after a short one-hander by Sorge and Bucon's baseline drive. Tucker County refused to go quietly, however.
Taking advantage of a half-dozen Central turnovers in the quarter and three stickback goals from Maxwell, the Lions battled back to within 24-19 late in the half. Sorge then dished the ball to Angela Sparachane, who buried a baseline jumper only to be countered by a Luaren Whitehair kiss shot off the glass, trimming the Central advantage to 26-21 at the half.
The contributions by non-starters Emily Wizba, Sparachane and Martin during the first half didn't go unnoticed by Kurtz in his postgame comments.
''Our bench played exceptionally well," he stressed. ''They kept us in the lead when really needed them."
Tucker was able to trim the deficit to 26-23 when Hunter Radford found the net with his jump shot to open the third quarter, but Bucon scored from the inside and Bri Robbins drained a 3-pointer out of the corner.
After an Evans' 3-pointer got the Lions within 31-26, McCormick drew a foul while going back up with the rebound of her own missed shot and she drained both free throws.
Midway through the quarter, Bucon's dish to Julia Palmer resulted in a layup and Wizba added a foul shot a few seconds later for a 40-29 Central advantage.
Leading 45-34 after Sparachane swished a turnaround shot to close the third quarter, the Maroon Knights threatened to blow the game open when Sorge began the final 8 minutes with a 3-pointer from the left wing. McCormick connected on a soft jumper a few seconds later for a 50-34 lead.
Although Evans had 10 of her points in the quarter, Tucker was unable to get its deficit under double digits the rest of the way.
Bucon, hitting five free throws, had seven points down the stretch, McCormick six and Sorge five.