WHEELING - It was one of the most anticipated early season showdowns in the Ohio Valley, and it lived up to all the expectations.
When West Virginia Class A Section One rivals Wheeling Central and Bishop Donahue met up Friday night, it was not only for some early season bragging rights and a possible upper hand down the road, but for a trip to the finals of the Undo's Upper Ohio Valley Basketball Tournament.
After not hitting a field goal in the first half, Maroon Knights' senior David Park exploded for 19 of his game-high 23 points during the final two quarters, while sophomore standout Chase Harler did his part with 16 points as Wheeling Central erased a six-point third period deficit to record an impressive 63-58 victory against the Bishops at Wheeling Jesuit University's Alma Grace McDonough Center.
The victory sets up another key local clash tonight at 8:30 when Mel Stephens' team (2-0) will take on Steubenville Catholic for the title. It will be a rematch of the Maroon Knights' thrilling OVAC championship game victory against the Crusaders a season ago.
The consolation game will feature Tom Wise's Bishops (2-1) and Clay-Battelle at 5:30 p.m.
"Wins like this are always important, no matter what time of year it is," Stephens said. "They are a sectional rival and it is always nice to get a game up on a team like Donahue."
Behind six points from senior Alonzo Manns, the Knights raced out to a 12-3 lead early on, before a 6-0 run cut the deficit to 12-9 entering the second. Donahue took its only lead of the first half on a Chaice Truex deuce inside at the 6:17 mark of the second for a 15-14 advantage.
But Central closed on an 8-5 run to take a 22-20 edge to the locker room.
Park's first field goal of the contest began the third quarter and gave the Maroon Knights a four-point lead before the Bishops caught fire. Senior sharp-shooter Bryce Jones, who sat out most of the first half with two fouls, scored five in a row to begin a 12-2 burst that gave Donahue its biggest margin of the night at 32-26.
But it only seemed to wake Park and Harler up as the duo combined for 12 points during a 15-2 run that gave Wheeling Central a 41-34 cushion after three frames.
The lead grew to 12 on two occasions before Truex, the Bishops' big man, stepped out and drained a 3-pointer with 15 seconds showing that made it a 62-58 game. Park's charity toss at the 12 second mark provided the final outcome.
In all, Park and Harler, who combined for eight points in the first half, had 31 between them in the second half and 39 of Wheeling Central's points for the contest.
"They really picked it up a little in the second half," Stephens said. "David is a senior and realizes this is his last go around and he wants to lead this team. Chase did an outstanding job backing him and I can't say enough about what freshman Brian Campbell gave us off the bench.
"We had a key stretch after they got the lead and we had Manns and Stanley on the bench, and while David Park and Chase Harler did so much, Campbell gave us a huge lift and Boyd Bibey hit a big 3 in there also.
"But I really think it was Campbell's presence in the middle in the second half that helped open things up for the other two."
Park and Harler also accounted for 14 rebounds while Manns finished with nine points, all in the first half and Campbell added six points and pulled down five of his team-high nine rebounds in the fourth period.
Truex had another monster game for the Bishops with 20 points and 16 rebounds while Jones scored 12 of his 13 in the second half and freshman Taylor Straughn chipped in nine tallies off the pine.
"Unfortunately we got the six-point lead in the third quarter and then we just quit doing things well," Wise said. "We played outstanding defense in the first half and did a good job rebounding, but it stopped.
"I believe we really had a chance to put them away in the third quarter and we didn't do it. Don't get me wrong, they have some very good players, but we missed our chance.
"It really felt good to only be down two at the half with Bryce (Jones) on the bench for most of it, and it could have been even better for us, but we made some bad reads inside trying to get Chaice the ball.
"We just need to put this one behind us now. We have a vicious section and we will learn from this game, but it is about the rest of them coming up now. It doesn't get any easier for us, this is going to be night-in and night-out and we better to be ready to play in games like this."
Central owned the boards by a 39-31 margin but turned the ball over three more times than the Bishops, 17-14.