ST. CLAIRSVILLE – The Wheeling Hospital Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Class 2A boys basketball championship game was an instant classic.
And Wheeling Central Catholic’s Justin Hammers got to play its hero.
With 3.3 seconds left Hammers put in a lay up off a backdoor cut to give the Maroon Knights a 52-50 lead over Steubenville Catholic Central.
The Crusaders called timeout to set up a play, but their desperation down court pass was intercepted setting off a Maroon Knights celebration.
“I’ve got to give a ton of credit to my kids,” said Wheeling Central head coach Mel Stephens. “We were down eight or nine, and got in a little bit of foul trouble, but they keep playing.
“We made plays when we had to, we got a few stops, made some big plays on offense when we had to, and were just able to hang around to have the ball in our hands at the end for the win.”
Added Tucker of the final pass, “That last play of the game was drawn up for an out-of-bounds play. Not having a timeout, I would have liked to call timeout and call something different because they did a good job of taking away a pass Brenton (Colabella) was going to.
“That puts my kid in a bad situation to have my kid throw the ball on the break, and that falls on me. In that situation, with no timeouts, I have to have them ready with a different play if they go to that, and, quite honestly, I didn’t.”
The play leading to the Hammers’ bucket looked to be going the Crusaders way at its inception. The Knights’ leading scorer, Chase Harler, started with the ball in his hands, but a Crusaders’ double-team knocked the ball away from the freshman. Unfortunately for the Crusaders, the Maroon Knights regained control and got the ball to David Park who dished to Hammers for the game-winner.
“What we were trying to do was double him (Harler),” said Tucker. “We clearly hit the ball, it could have went our way, and it bounced the opposite way because our guy’s adrenaline was taking him to the other side of the floor.
“So he (Hammers) slipped back door and scored.”
Steubenville Central kept control of the game defensively in the first half, holding the Maroon Knights to just 17 points in the game’s first 16 minutes. Harler was forced to sit for the final 3:45 of the first half after picking up his third foul, and Stephens took his team out of their normal man-to-man defense and switched to a zone.
“They’re very deliberate,” said Stephens. “Sean does a great job with those guys. They’re very deliberate against the man, and we got in foul which made us switch to the zone, and that slowed them down a little more. I thought we did fairly well in the zone.
“I thought where they hurt us was where they kept it to one side for a couple passes and then reversed it to the other side.
“They were able to knock those shots down. We made a little bit of an adjustment in the first half to get keep our wing guys out on that, and in the second half we had to go with our bread and butter. You have to be able to guard people man-to-man, and we basically tried to come out and not let them take shots without a hand in their face, or let them dribble-drive to the middle. I thought we did a good job of that, and if you can rebound on top of that you’re doing a good job.”
At intermission Ryan Fletcher led the Crusaders with nine points, Harler had six for the Maroon Knights, and Steubenville Central led 22-17.
Wheeling Central pulled back within two entering the final quarter after falling behind by as many as eight the third stanza. Harler led a balanced attack with five points in the quarter. Fletcher kept his team in the lead with a 10-point quarter.
The fourth quarter saw the two teams swing at each other like heavyweight prizefighters until the score was tied again for the first time since 2-2 when the Maroon Knights’ Brandon Wallace knotted the action at 45 with 2:41 remaining.
David Park hit a three for Wheeling Central to give his team their first lead if the game at 48-45. Zach Herrington tied the game back up at 48 with a three of is own, and Park took the lead back at 50-48 with another bucket with 49 seconds left.
Herrington followed his own miss and was fouled on the attempt at a put back. He stepped to the line and calmly knocked down both shots at the 28.4-second mark setting up Hammers heroics.
“Neither team quit,” said Tucker. “It’s about both teams. I’ve heard all week about Wheeling Central, Wheeling Central. Well we’re Steubenville Central.
“We came down here to earn respect. That’s what we came here to do. These kids worked so hard. There is a team that played against Wheeling Central and that is Steubenville Central.
“These kids played their hearts out today. The outcome of this game, I don’t want to point fingers, the outcome of this game should be going to these kids behind me. They played their hearts out. There were a couple breakdowns, but that happens with high school kids. As far as it goes this is Steubenville Catholic Central, they played hard today.”
Harlan led the Maroon Knights with an 18-point, 10-rebound performance. Park joined him in double figures with 12 points and added five assists. Wallace added 10 points and five boards.
Fletcher led all scorers with 21 points while adding four rebounds. Herrington scored 11 and pulled down six boards. The Crusaders had eight steals with Michael Barber snatching three and Michael Carapellotti swiping a pair.
The Crusaders now get ready for sectional play. They take on Strasburg at 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at New Philadelphia High School.
“I can tell you this; it made these kids really mad,” Tucker said of the loss. “It made these kids really mad, and I feel sorry for whoever we have to play next and from here on out. That’s the type of kids we have at Catholic Central.
“They’re hard-nosed kids, they’re hard-coached, they play hard for me, and we have a great staff that works hard.”