HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Huntington entered last week’s boys basketball state tournament as the No. 5 seed, overshadowed by the undefeated record of No. 1 Washington, the flashy young talent of two-seed South Charleston and even the star power of No. 4 George Washington behind the state’s leading scorer Jon Elmore.
But at the week’s end, it was all about the Highlanders as Huntington claimed its first state championship since 2007 by knocking off Elmore’s Patriots (Huntington had lost twice in the regular season to George Washington), eliminating favorite Washington and surviving a dramatic finale against No. 7 Hurricane.
It was a lot to take in, and a fitting end to a thrilling 2014 boys basketball tournament overall.
“It’s been great,” said Huntington head coach Ron Hess. “I’ve gotten so many phone calls and texts from so many different people, friends and family. Everybody has just been on Cloud 9 – it’s been a great experience for the entire team and something the kids wanted so bad. I’m so happy for them to get a state championship – it’s just been very nice.”
The title game delivered plenty of dramatics as Huntington’s Arick Nicks hit the game winning free throw with just 2.5 seconds to go, lifting the Highlanders to a 55-54 win over Hurricane.
“I thought he would make one of the free throws,” Hess said. “I really hoped he would have made that first one to take some of the pressure off.
“That’s the kind of game that everyone wants to see, a championship game that comes down to the wire,” Hess continued. “During the end of the game, all your thinking about is what you have to do to get the victory. We were very fortunate to come out with the win, it could have gone either way. My hat goes off to Coach (Lance) Sutherland and Hurricane, they had a great tournament and played a great game, but in the end, it just went our way.”
And along the way, it was sophomore guard Tavian Dunn-Martin making a name for himself throughout the tournament – he posted 20 points in that championship win, including a game-tying 3 with 48 seconds to go.
“He’s a special player as just a sophomore,” Hess said. “He wasn’t scared of the moment. It’s unbelievable that he has the kind of confidence in himself and in his game that he has. He’s a good basketball player that may be 5-foot-7 who averaged eight rebounds per game in the tournament. He just had a super championship game and great three games for us. He just wanted the ball and took a lot of big shots for us.”
Core players like Nicks and Dunn-Martin set expectations for Huntington at the beginning of the year to bring home a state title.
“We sure did (expect to win a title),” Hess said. “We got to the state tournament last year and had a good showing against Martinsburg last year. We had a lot of kids back.”
Even after giving up 40 points to George Washington’s Elmore, the Highlanders survived that quarterfinal game against the Patriots, eliminating GW 72-64. But the bigger stunner came in the semifinals as Huntington flexed its muscle against No. 1 Washington, beating the Patriots 66-57. It was Washington team that had averaged 88 points per game on the year.
“Washington had a fantastic team and that was a great game we played against them,” Hess said. “That was the most talented team that I’ve seen in a long time.
“The biggest key was not letting them get a lot of run-outs, get steals and go down and score six or eight unanswered points. We couldn’t let them get those easy baskets they were used to getting,” Hess continued. “We held them to maybe four or six fast break points in the game – that was key, how well we played our transition defense.”
As for the group of Highlanders who return for 2014-2015?
“We’ve got a lot of kids coming back next year,” Hess said. “Of course Dunn-Martin is coming back, Anthony Meadows, Chase Mann, a young kid John Dawson and Jalen Pennington. So, we have some kids that will be back, but we don’t really have that big man right now like Arick Nicks. But some good kids coming back and we’ll look forward to next season.”
And until then, the Highlanders will have plenty of time to enjoy the run they just put together, stealing the show in Class AAA.