ST. CLAIRSVILLE - After a 2-7, not even the staunchest of the Wheeling Central fans could have envisioned a .500 record and, even less likely, would have been thoughts of winning the Wheeling Hospital Ohio Valley Athletic Conference's Class 2A championship.
Typically of Mel Stephens-coached teams during his highly-successful 10-year reign, the Maroon Knights kept plugging away, getting better with each game before finally ascending to the top of the bi-state league's boys' basketball mountain after a thrill-packed 52-50 victory against Steubenville Catholic Central.
Rallying from a nine-point deficit midway through the third quarter on the Ohio University campus, opportunity finally came knocking at Wheeling Central's door as it had possession of the basketball with the score tied and just 20 seconds left in the hard-fought contest.
Wheeling Central’s Brandon Wallace (44) snares a rebound during Saturday morning’s OVAC Class 2A title game at OUE.
Photo by Fred Younce
Even then, victory wouldn't come easy. It had to survive what would have been a disastrous turnover. But the ball bounced its way and eventually into the hands of oft-unheralded senior guard Justin Hammers for the wide-open backdoor layup that sealed the deal.
Hammers' game-winner improved Wheeling Central's record to 11-11 heading into West Virginia Class A sectional play next week. Steubenville Catholic was saddled with its just its fifth loss against 15 victories, two of those setbacks coming at the hands of their down-river parochial rival.
Central also won the earlier meeting 72-60, but the Crusaders were without two of their key starters that were sidelined with the flu.
Coach Sean Tucker and his battling squad took the latest defeat hard and vowed to make up for it this week when his Crusaders also begin what they hoop will be a long tournament run.
''Two teams played their hearts out," Tucker said. ''Neither team quit. I thought we rotated (on defense) fairly well, but we had a couple of breakdowns and that's going to happen in high school basketball.
''(Losing) this game really made our kids mad and I feel sorry for whoever we play next and here on out," Tucker added.
While the Steubenville Catholic coaches were teary-eyed, there were smiles all around around the Wheeling Central contingent.
''You've got to give a ton of credit to the kids," an elated Stephens said. ''We were down eight or nine and ina little bit of foul trouble but they kept playing. When we had to get some stops and we needed some big plays on offense we got them. At the end when you have the ball in your hands with a chance to win the game that is all you can ask for in that situation.''
The Maroon Knights' strategy for the last play was certainly no surprise to anybody, especially Tucker. He knew the ball would first be placed in the hands of Wheeling Central's highly-capable freshman point guard Chase Harler.
''We ran what we called an eagle jump and double-teamed Harler when he came off the screen," Tucker noted. ''We believed we could get him to bobble the ball and we clearly hit it but the bounce did not fall our way."
Stephens expected the same double-team but he also felt the Crusaders also would use the foul they had at their disposal to waste before putting Wheeling Central on the foul line.
''I told the kids they were going to play extremely hard there,'' he said. ''We had Chase coming off the ball screen and they were able to deflect it away. The second part of that was David (Park) making a great read when the defense came out on him after he had picked up the ball. He then made the pass to Michael (Pleva). who turned around and found Justin underneath by himself. That was a big bucket," added Stephens in what was clearly an understatement.
Just three seconds remained on the clock after Hammers deposited the basketball into the nylon. Steubenville Catholic's desperation long pass into the front court was picked off by Harler sealing the victory.
Although the Crusaders led most the game, neither team ever managed a double-figure advantage.
Matt Martello's dribble penetration for a layup sent the Crusaders on top 6-5 and they went on to lead 13-10 at the end of the first quarter. Ryan Fletcher's four points during a low-scoring second quarter helped Steubenville Catholic leave the court up by 22-17 at halftime.
Park's triple pulled the Maroon Knights to within 22-20 at the outset of the third quarter before the Crusaders responded with a 11-4 run, keyed by two more Fletcher trifectas and another from Martello that extended the lead to 33-24, the largest of the game.
Brandon Wallace's backside rebound basket followed by Hammers nice roll to the hoop brought Wheeling Central to within 33-28. Harler buried a triple and Brian Felton also cashed a huge three-pointer closing the quarter with the Maroon Knights down by just two points at 36-34.
Harler scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half and pulled down 10 rebounds. He was joined in double figures by Park with 12 points, five assists and four rebounds along with Brandon Wallace with 10 points. Wallace also collected five rebounds.
Fletcher paced the Crusaders with 21 tallies while Herrington had 11 points, six rebounds and three assists.
''It was about the defensive end," Stephens stressed. ''Steubenville Catholic got out early on us but we just kept working on defense. We made a couple of slight adjustments to take away their drives and cuts and force them to shoot some perimeter jump shots."
When asked about the last-season run that enabled the Maroon Knights to finish at .500, Stephens pointed out that he had yet to tell his players about a similar situation during his first year as head coach.
Taking over a team that had won back-to-back state championships coached by Dave Wojcik, Stephens saw the Maroon Knights get off to a dismal 3-8 start. That team also rallied down the stretch 8-3 to also post an 11-11 record. Six victories later in post season play and Central brought home the state championship.
That was the first of four West Virginia single-A titles Central Catholic has won since 2004 with Stephens at the helm. The Maroon Knights also now have captured three OVAC crowns since the current tournament format was adopted in 2008. Overall, the school has won 21 OVAC boys' basketball championships, which is most of any school in the league's 70-year history.