CHARLESTON - With starters Audra Clark and Dani Moore having fouled out late in the fourth quarter of Friday morning's West Virginia Class A state semifinal against Wheeling Central, St. Marys coach Howard Meeks challenged his bench to respond.
It did in a big way.
Haley Everett's shot with under a minute left gave the Blue Devils the lead and Ashley Hall's free throws and eight points down the stretch sealed it as St. Marys hung on for a thrilling 45-43 victory inside the Civic Center Coliseum.
The Blue Devils, the No. 3 seed, will battle top seed Huntington St. Joe for the championship at noon today. The Irish, playing for their fifth straight championship, throttled Tucker County, 63-31, in their semifinal.
"Wow, what a game," an emotional Meeks said.
It was the second thrilling game in as many days between the schools. Wheeling Central's boys earned a berth in next week state tournament by edging St. Marys on the road on Friday night.
St. Marys 45, Wheeling Central 43
St. Marys 9 10 4 22 - 45
Wheeling Central 11 11 6 15 - 43
ST. MARYS (25-1): Britton 0-1 0-0 0, Moore 1-5 0-0 2, Fetty 1-9 2-2 4, Walker 7-13 0-1 14, Clark 7-17 1-2 15, Hall 2-5 4-4 8, Everett 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 19-51 7-9 45.
WHEELING CENTRAL (22-5): Olson 0-1 0-0 0, McCormick 3-9 8-10 14, Basinger 0-2 0-0 0, Bucon 5-16 8-12 19, Stayduhar 0-2 0-0 0, Blaha 2-5 1-3 5, Calissie 1-3 0-0 2, Baker 1-8 0-0 3, Cross 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 12-47 17-25 43.
3-Point Goals-St. Marys 0-6 (Moore 0-2, Fetty 0-2, Hall 0-2), Wheeling Central 2-12 (Bucon 1-3, Baker 1-3, Olson 0-1, Blaha 0-1, McCormick 0-2, Stayduhar 0-2). Fouled Out-Moore, Clark. Rebounds-St. Marys 35 (Walker), Wheeling Central 39 (Bucon 14). Assists-St. Marys 11 (Fetty 6), Wheeling Central 7 (McCormick 2). Total Fouls-St. Marys 21, Wheeling Central 13. A-na.
"I think their spirit was with us a little bit (Friday)," Meeks said.
It wasn't the prettiest game in the tournament, but it had plenty of drama, especially during the fourth quarter.
The Maroon Knights (22-5) took a four-point lead, 33-29, on Colleen McCormick's runner off the glass with 4:35 remaining.
The Blue Devils (25-1, with the lone loss coming to Wheeling Central) responded with a turnaround shot by Kendra Walker to make the score 33-31. Then, Moore came up with a steal in Central's backcourt and raced in for a layup that tied the game at 33-33.
McCormick missed a shot on Central's ensuing possession and a scrum resulted in a jump ball with the arrow pointing in St. Marys' direction.
Hall, the freshman who was 0-for-6 in the Blue Devils' quarterfinal victory against Tygarts Valley, canned a baseline jumper that gave her team the lead, 35-33, with 3:03 left.
With 2:46 remaining, McCormick hit a pair of free throws tying the score and Bucon was fouled a short time later and also made both free throws for a 37-35 cushion.
The Blue Devils responded with a Walker hook with 2:10 left that knotted the score again, 37-37.
Later, with score tied, 39-39, Everett caught a pass to left of the basket. She lost the handle and a scrum ensued. She came out with the ball and put in a shot over Central's Emily Bucon that gave St. Marys the lead, 41-39, with 40.9 seconds left.
"By golly, if she never scores another basket that was a huge one right there,'' Meeks said.
St. Marys' lead swelled to four, 43-39, when Hall stepped to line and hit what would be the first of four straight free throws with 28 ticks showing.
A Bucon layup cut the lead to two, 43-41, but Hall hit two free throws again to push the lead back to four, 45-41.
McCormick hit two free throws with 1.6 seconds left to make the score 45-43.
St. Marys turned it over on the inbounds leaving the Maroon Knights with one last shot with .3 seconds left. But McCormick's heave was off the mark.
"We knew it was going to be a tough ballgame," Wheeling Central coach Penn Kurtz said. "It always is with St. Marys."
The Maroon Knights scored 15 fourth-quarter points, but hit only two field goals. For the game, Central was 12 of 47 from the field (25.5 percent).
"They took a lot of things away from us," Kurtz said. "They made us work for every shot."
Kurtz said he wasn't surprised Walker, who finished with 14 points and 16 rebounds, took control down the stretch.
"We knew where they were going with the ball, we just couldn't stop it," he said.
He also wasn't surprised by Hall's performance.
"I know she's been able to score," he said. "We didn't want to foul her, but she had the ball."
Hall relished the chance.
"I was so nervous," she said. "I wanted to go to the state championship and it was great to get that chance (to hit the free throws)."
Meeks said Hall's performance was a result of hard work paying off.
"It's not easy to come into my program," he said. "You have to know how to play and step up in big moments.
"(Friday) they showed why they strap on the shoes and do what they do."
Bucon and McCormick finished their prep careers in strong fashion. Bucon had 19 points, with McCormick netting 14.
"These two seniors right here worked their hearts out and all they wanted to do was get back to the final," Kurtz said while seated next to Bucon and McCormick at the postgame news conference.
"I'm just so proud of them, as well as everyone else on the team.
"They all gave everything they had out there. I don't think they left anything out there. I love coaching them.
"But you have to hand it to St. Marys. They did what they needed to do to win the game."