CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With No. 3 seed Pendleton County trailing No. 2 Tug Valley by one point during a timeout with 19 seconds remaining, Wildcats’ coach Ryan Lambert went over his plan ahead of Isaiah Gardiner’s second free-throw attempt in an effort to tie.
As the Wildcats broke the huddle and returned to the court, Lambert had a message for 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior Josh Alt.
“After they hit the floor, I got Josh’s attention and mouthed, ‘Go eat,’” Lambert said. “That simply meant effort.”
When Gardiner’s second free throw missed the mark, Alt grabbed the rebound and scored inside with 17 seconds remaining for what proved to be the winning basket in Pendleton’s 38-35 victory over the Panthers in a Class A semifinal.
“I had all the faith in the world in Isaiah to make both free throws, but there’s still no reason not to try and go get it,” Alt said. “I just used my size.”
The Panthers (13-3) had a chance to regain the lead late, but Ian Reed missed a three. Bailey Thompson then made two free throws with 1.1 seconds left to help put the Wildcats in Saturday’s Class A title game against No. 1 Man or No. 4 Webster County.
“To have electricity in the building like that, it does create pressure, but I was confident in myself,” Thompson said.
Pendleton County (17-0) will be after its 41st consecutive victory and first state championship.
“The only thing that matters is in that locker room,” Lambert said. “These guys haven’t heard the noise. Strength of schedule, we could care less. We’ve played the games we’ve played and we know the work we’ve put in.”
The lowing-scoring affair saw the Wildcats (17-0) hold a 24-22 lead through three quarters. An Ethan Colegrove follow-up basket put TVHS in front 28-27 with 4:25 remaining, but Pendleton answered with six straight points to lead by five following Thompson’s jump shot with 2:46 left.
Caleb May answered with a three-point and layup to pull the Panthers even, before Reed’s jump shot gave them a 35-33 lead with 1:08 to play.
Neither team led by more than four throughout the first half, which saw the Wildcats overcome a 13-10 deficit to lead 17-16 at halftime.
“Defensively isn’t where we lost it,” Panthers’ coach Garland “Rabbit” Thompson said. ‘Everybody will point to the missed foul shot that we didn’t get, but if we make another shot here or there through the course of the game or get a transition bucket, who knows?”
Pendleton built a lead as large as four during a third quarter that it never trailed in, before settling for the two-point advantage ahead of the fourth.
Tug Valley attempted 16 more shots than Pendleton (48-32), but was outscored 12-3 at the free-throw line.
“We couldn’t hardly run anything offensively, so we started spreading them out,” Thompson said. “They’re not trying to score seventy, which we are. We’re trying to get up and down.”
The Wildcats did not make a three-pointer and attempted only two, leaving them 1 for 7 beyond the arc in two games at the Charleston Coliseum.
Thompson’s 15 points and nine rebounds led PCHS, while Alt added 12 points and 11 rebounds. The Wildcats had their way on the glass with the Panthers to the tune of a 33-22 advantage.
“If I asked him to run through a brick wall for me, he’d say which one? That sums it up,” Lambert said of Alt.
Tug Valley, which had only five turnovers and forced 16, got 20 points from May in the loss. Colegrove added seven points and nine boards in the season-ending setback.
“It hurts now and it’s going to hurt for a while,” Thompson said. “It hurts our community. Our community bleeds Tug Valley basketball. These kids have been raised up to be out here and when they lose, it hurts. If i knew what to say, I would tell them.”