CHARLESTON - Wheeling Central coach Penn Kurtz knew coming into his team's first-round matchup with Charleston Catholic in the girls' basketball state tournament that Irish freshman Vida Imani had a wide shooting range.
The 5-foot-9 post player proved it as she knocked down a 3-pointer from the right corner to put the Irish ahead by five, 43-38, with 90 seconds remaining.
It was that bucket - the only 3-pointer the Irish connected on - that proved to be the difference as Charleston Catholic eliminated Maroon Knights, 49-44.
PHOTO BY KENNY KEMP/Charleston Gazette
Charleston Catholic’s Hanna Gallian shoots over the hand of Wheeling Central’s MacKenzie Michaels as the Knights’ Regan Blaha looks on.
''She's done that all year for them,'' Kurtz said. ''Last time we played them she made three 3-pointers. I thought Mackenzie Michaels did a great job on her all game. She did sneak away for that one 3-pointer.''
Prior to that, Imani was 0-for-4 from behind the arc.
''That was a huge shot,'' Irish coach Zach Bogan said. ''She was getting knocked around in there a bit, but was able to stay in and hit that 3. Big-time effort. That came at the perfect time.
''She's taken that shot all year. There's no point changing it. It was an open look, it wasn't forced. It was a good shot.''
Junior Regan Blaha, who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, answered on the other end with a short jumper and fellow junior Cate Calissie knocked down a 3 of her own to make it a one-point game at 44-43, but the Irish (20-6) were able to connect on five of their six free throws in the final 40 seconds to escape with a victory, and a date today with five-time defending West Virginia Class A champion St. Joe.
''We knew coming it in was going to be a dog fight for us and it was,'' Bogan said. ''We almost gave it away there at the end, but we were able to make plays and get stops to win the game.''
At halftime, the Irish looked like they would run away as they held Central (14-11) to three second-quarter points and took a 20-13 lead into the locker room.
The distinctly shorter Irish players were able to knock the Knights out of their offensive rhythm right from the start with their high-pressure defense, which forced 17 Central turnovers. Charleston Catholic was able to turn those turnovers into points as it scored 22 points off takeaways.
''They do a great job of what they have,'' Kurtz said. ''They're short and they're quick and they use that quickness to their advantage. Every time we tried to get it inside, they'd double up on the post or deflect the pass away. That caused us some frustration. We were able to get some second-chance baskets in the second half, but, again, I have to give them credit. They played hard and they used what they had to their advantage.''
Free throws were another factor as Central hit for only 11 of its 21, while the Irish were 12 of 16.
''It could be nerves, it could be a little bit of fatigue,'' Kurtz said of the 10 missed foul shots. ''We haven't played for a week. Sometimes it's a little hard to come out after you sat around all day. You just have to make those shots.''
Charleston Catholic also essentially took Central sophomore Lindsey Baker out of the game as she finished with only seven points on 1 of 10 shooting.
''That was huge,'' Bogan said. ''We knew she was going to be aggressive. She likes to get to the rim. We did a really did a good job of moving our feet and staying in front so any shot she did have it was going to contested.''
Vida finished with a game-high 17 points to go along with seven rebounds and three blocks, while seniors Anna Whelan, who scored her 1,000th career point at the 4:15 mark of the third, and Hanna Gallian finished with 12 and 10 points, respectively.
Central senior Ashton Cross ended her prep career with eight points, four rebounds and three assists, while fellow senior MacKenize Michaels finished with seven points and four steals.
''I give Charleston Catholic a lot of credit,'' Kurtz said. ''They did what they had to do to win this game.''