WHEELING - Leading 34-31 at halftime against once-beaten Clay-Battelle, the Wheeling Central girls' basketball team turned to the two players that have been the keys to their success during the past three seasons.
Colleen McCormick and Emily Bucon combined to score the Maroon Knights first 18 points of the third quarter during a 24-2 run that set the tone for an 81-46 victory that propelled Coach Penn Kurtz's defending champions into the OVAC Class 2A final.
Central (17-3) will face the winner of tonight's Shadyside at Bridgeport game in the 10 a.m. conference championship contest on Saturday at the Ohio University Eastern campus.
Wheeling Central’s Maria Olson (2) drives against Clay-Battelle’s Breann Dean during Tuesday night’s Class 2A semifinal of the Wheeling Hospital OVAC Tournament.
McCormick pumped in 10 points during the third quarter and finished with a game-high 29 points and seven rebounds, while Bucon went 7-for-7 from the floor after halftime to wind up with 22 points.
Along with the usual scoring achievements by the two Maroon Knights standouts, Kurtz was thrilled with the play of his team's defense coming out of the locker room after halftime.
''In the first half we did not defend very well and we talked about the easy baskets we were giving up," Kurtz said. ''When we came out for the second half, we picked up the intensity of the defense and Beth Stayduhar got a couple of big steals early to get us rolling. I thought we needed to get up and down the floor and try to wear them out. It was hot in here and we can run 10 or 11 people on the floor. Our depth was definitely a factor in the second half," he added.
Clay-Battelle (14-2) came into the game ranked second among the West Virginia Class A teams, one notch ahead of the Maroon Knights.
For a while it appeared that the Cee Bees were going to give the hosts all they could handle.
Running an impressive pass and cut offense in the early going, Clay-Battelle shot 50 percent from the floor in the opening quarter and led 16-9 before two free throws by Bucon, one from Ashton Cross and a McCormick stickback goal trimmed the advantage to two points.
Regan Blaha's nice drive to the basket got Central back to within one point and McCormick fouled going up for a shot, hit both ends of the two-shot foul to give the Maroon Knights the lead for the first time at 25-24 with 3:17 remaining in the half. They wouldn't trail again.
Bucon rebounded her own missed shot and Maria Olson's two free throws pushed the advantage out to five points. After McCormick buried the first of her two trifectas, Central led 34-28, but a Breann Dean free throw and Mickayla Eddy basket made it a three-point game at halftime.
Two McCormick baskets and one from Bucon opened the second half ignited Central at a time when the Cee Bees suddenly had problems protecting the basketball.
Hayley Jones, Clay-Battelle's only double-digit scorer as she tossed in 14 points, cut the deficit to 40-33 but Central went on to score the next 18 points to end the quarter with an overwhelming 58-33 advantage.
McCormick and Bucon provided all of the offense until Lindsey Baker chipped in with two frees and a basket wrapped around a Madison Basinger goal from in the paint.
''I thought we got a great effort from everybody," Kurtz said. ''We had Colleen out chasing No. 23 (Hayley Jones) and that took her away from the boards a little bit but Madison Basinger did a nice job cleaning up the inside for us."
Kurtz also explained that while the Maroon Knights made a slight adjustment to try and free up McCormick, the offensive game plan wasn't much different than usual.
''Most of our offense is set up that way,'' he said. ''They are the two scorers in that group and we kind of go through them.
''We definitely feed off each other," McCormick said about the way she and Bucon perform on the court. ''We've been playing together a long time and it's really fun for both us."
Bucon, making an amazing comeback for a knee injury that at first threatened to end her senior season, feels she is making excellent progress.
''I'm still strengthening the knee and it is starting to feel a lot better" she said.
The four-year veteran admitted that she was still playing somewhat timidly during last week's loss to city rival Wheeling Park.
''It was my first really intense game coming back and I really wasn't sure of myself," she added.
Clay-Battle coach Dave Price was disappointed after watching his team struggle during the entire second half. He put the blame entirely on a lack of execution especially in the third quarter when the Cee Bees threw the ball away 10 times and finished the game with 21 turnovers.
''We played really well in the first half and I don't think Central changed very much what they were doing," Price said. ''They are a very good club, no doubt, but we weren't running the offense they we should have been during the third quarter."
Foul problems also hurt the visitors as three of their starters had to sit out for an extended time after picking up two fouls each in the first half.
''From a depth standpoint it really hurt us when he had to sit down a lot of our key players,'' Price said.
''But you try and learn something from every game you play," Price continued. ''This isn't the end of the world. We have to get ready for the sectionals and hope we don't have another game like we had (Tuesday)."