WHEELING - Sitting at 2-7 nearly halfway through the first half of the regular season, Wheeling Central appeared to be a basketball team heading nowhere, fast.
But two weeks after capturing an OVAC championship, a rejuvenated Maroon Knights squad now finds itself heading for a sectional final Friday night, with a berth in the regional, and just one game away from a trip to Charleston, already guaranteed.
Freshman Chase Harler shook off some early troubles at the free-throw line to score 30 points, including three late freebees, and Brian Felton scored his only two points of the night from the line with 30 seconds showing as Wheeling Central held off a gutsy Bishop Donahue team by a 67-64 margin.
The victory sends Coach Mel Stephens' team (12-11) into the West Virginia Class A Regional One, Section One championship game Friday night at 7 p.m. at the John Marshall Fieldhouse in Moundsville against powerful Magnolia, which has already beaten the Knights twice.
"Magnolia is a very big challenge for us," Stephens said. "And we are going down there to win, but even if we don't, we still have life and a trip to Charleston is the ultimate goal."
Late in the third quarter, and even still early in the fourth, it looked like a trip to the sectional final was all but booked at Central led 47-34 with 2:57 to go in the third on a David Park 3-pointer. It was still 50-41 after three quarters and 59-47 with 3:15 to go on a pair of Harler field goals.
But the Bishops were not done and continued to battle, scoring seven in a row and using a 13-4 spurt to cut the deficit to 63-60 with 33 seconds showing. That is when Felton stepped to the line and made it a five-point game on a night when Wheeling Central was just 13 of 25 from the line.
Sophomore Jesse Padlow brought it back to three with a basket at the 23-second mark before two more Harler free-throws made it a 67-62 count.
A Padlow basket just before the buzzer provided the final outcome.
"We didn't shoot the ball very well from the line, but down the stretch Chase (Harler) made them when he needed to and Felton got us a couple of big ones," Stephens added.
Donahue led twice early, and after falling behind by eight early in the second, grabbed a 23-20 upper hand midway through the second on a Bryce Jones 3-pointer and Jared Yates free throw. But the Bishops were not able to take advantage of some early Maroon Knights foul trouble and never led again after a 5-0 run by the hosts.
"They got in some foul trouble early on, but we threw a couple away and just didn't take advantage of some opportunities to extend the lead and put some pressure on them," Donahue coach Tom Wise said. "But this team never quit, even when we knew we were in trouble they kept plugging away. We just couldn't get it over the hump."
While Harler finished with 30 for the winners, Park added 14 before a bloody head sent him to the locker room with 1:07 to play. Park did nail a pair of treys in the third that helped extend the advantage. Jones had three bonus bombs and 21 for the Bishops while Padlow finished with 15 and Yates had 11 off the bench.
Donahue's biggest problem was establishing its inside game, something it was not able to do consistently all night.
"I respect their inside game, but Padlow and Jones scare the heck out of me shooting 3s from 8 or 9 feet behind the line," Stephens said. "But our post guys did a great job battling.
"This has just been a great run. When we were 2-7 we set a goal to get back to .500 and we did that with our OVAC championship win, now we are on a roll and have some confidence. These seniors really want to go out with a bang."
While Wise now has to wait until next season to send his team back out onto the court, he is happy with his squad (13-10) and really looking forward to the future.
"Our sophomores looked a little like sophomores inside (Tuesday)," Wise said. "But we are young and I think that hair of inexperience in this type of environment made a little bit of a difference. I am very happy with this team, we need to get a little bigger, faster and stronger, but this team can do some big things in the next couple of years."