CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nitro coach Pat Jones knew he had a mentally tough team ahead of Saturday’s Class AAA title against top seed and unbeaten Fairmont Senior.
Still, not even Jones would have believed the level of resiliency and toughness his team would display in claiming an improbable 51-45 victory over the Polar Bears for a state championship at the Charleston Coliseum.
Forced to play the final 20:15 of the contest without injured star senior Baylee Goins, the Wildcats never wavered and instead handed FSHS its first loss to claim their first state title.
“What a game. I’m still in shock,” Jones said. “I told the girls at halftime I believed in them and we couldn’t give up. There were still two quarters left and we were only down two points. These girls handle constructive criticism and they never give up.”
The Wildcats (18-1) played as well in the first quarter as Jones could have hoped for on both ends and built an 18-5 lead. Along with Goins scoring the game’s first five points, Taylor Maddox had Nitro’s last six of the frame.
Meanwhile, the Polar Bears made 1-of-17 field-goal attempts.
“We had our opportunities,” FSHS coach Corey Hines said. “We just didn’t take advantage.”
Fairmont Senior (17-1) settled in and scored the first nine points of the second quarter, before Goins suffered what Jones confirmed is a torn left ACL on a drive to the basket.
In 11 possessions over the remainder of the opening half, the Wildcats had eight turnovers and entered halftime trailing 22-20.
Goins’ injury and the Polar Bears winning the second quarter 17-2 left a bleak outlook for Nitro, but the Wildcats refused to give in.
“We all knew within ourselves that we could do it without Baylee,” Nitro junior Danielle Ward said. “She makes it a lot easier on the court, but we all have our parts that we can contribute to win a game.”
With the game tied at 26 in the third quarter, Ward gave Nitro the lead with two free throws, and Lena Elkins scored inside twice in the final 1:46 of the quarter to send the Wildcats into the fourth leading 32-28.
Prior to the start of the fourth, Maddox had a moment on the bench with Goins, who rejoined the Wildcats on the sideline in the second half.
“I told her this is for you and we worked and did all of this just for Baylee, because we earned it and deserve it,” Maddox said.
Maddox then connected on a pair of triples in the first 2:04 of the final period, the latter of which gave NHS a 38-31 lead.
FSHS answered with seven straight points and pulled even on a Regan Blesher three-pointer with 4:02 remaining.
Elkins scored the Wildcats’ next five points, before Fairmont Senior standout Marley Washenitz fouled out with 2:29 to play and her team trailing 43-40.
“I’ve been known as an aggressive player so being in foul trouble is nothing new to me,” Washenitz said. “It didn’t seem like much time left, but it’s a lot of time to me. A lot can happen in two minutes.”
Although the Polar Bears got to within two on a Bekah Jenkins triple with 2:12 left, they were unable to get over the hump late. A layup by Brooklyn Bowen with 1:49 remaining gave NHS a 48-43 lead, and Ward made two free throws 25 seconds later.
Jenkins’ bucket from long range was the last time Fairmont Senior scored until Meredith Maier’s bucket with 2 seconds left.
“When you start feeling and applying pressure to yourself, that’s the toughest defense you’ll ever face,” Hines said. “We started to press a little bit because we fought against the clock.”
Maddox led all players with 17 points and added five steals. Bowen had 10 rebounds and although the Wildcats were out-rebounded 45-38, they won the second-half battle, 20-16.
Elkins made all four of her field-goal attempts and scored 10 points.
“I’m not going to single out any one player, because it was an all-around group effort,” Jones said. “Baylee went down and this team never gave up. That’s what we’ve asked for all year.”
Washenitz had 11 points, nine rebounds and four steals but was held to 5-of-26 shooting.
The Polar Bears shot 23 percent for the game and couldn’t capitalize on 35 more field-goal attempts than the WIldcats (74-39).
Maier had 22 rebounds, including 17 in the opening half. Blasher added 10 points and Emily Starn had nine steals in defeat.
Taylor Maddox, Nitro
Peyton, Ilderton, Logan
Meredith Maier, Fairmont Senior
Olivia Toland, North Marion
Emily Starn, Fairmont Senior
Karlie Denham, North Marion
Marley Washenitz, Fairmont Senior
Baylee Goins, Nitro