WILLIAMSTOWN, W.Va. — To win at Williamstown for the second time this season, Wheeling Central girls basketball coach Roberta Olejasz felt it would take a high level defensive effort from the Maroon Knights.
Fortunately for Olejasz, her team delivered in that regard and then some in Tuesday’s Class AA Region I final.
The Maroon Knights held the Yellowjackets to three first-half field goals and a mere 10 for the game, while forcing 19 turnovers and maintaining a lead over the final three quarters in a 45-38 victory that secures their trip to the state tournament.
“We knew we were going to have to play extremely well defensively,” Olejasz said, “and I thought we did.”
WCHS (19-6) is the No. 4 seed at the state tournament and will take on No. 5 Charleston Catholic in a quarterfinal next Wednesday.
Outside of a 4-2 deficit, Central never trailed.
Valerie Downing scored eight first-quarter points on 3-for-3 shooting to key the Maroon Knights to a 10-8 lead ahead of the second period.
Downing opened the second-quarter scoring with a three-pointer off the wing, although Riley Landis countered with a trey of her own that allowed the Yellowjackets to trail 13-12.
However, Williamstown did not score again the rest of the way, and Central got a buzzer-beating triple from Brooklyn Edge to double its advantage to 18-12 at halftime.
“That’s a momentum buster,” Williamstown interim coach Danny Bunch said. “The momentum had swung a little bit and we actually had a little something going, but when she hits that three at the buzzer, it’s a little backbreaking. The girls were a little deflated at halftime and I told them as bad as we played in the first half, we were still only down six.”
Olejasz was pleased to see her team learn from its shortcoming to end the first quarter when the Maroon Knights couldn’t manage to get a shot off despite holding the ball to do just that.
“At the end of the first quarter, we talked about having to recognize time and clock,” Olejasz said. “We have to get a shot off. I was like, ‘I don’t care if it goes in or not. We have to get a shot off.’ They listened and she did exactly what she had to do.”
Although Williamstown held a 19-15 rebounding edge at halftime, the Yellowjackets made only 3-of-20 field-goal attempts and turned it over nine times over the first two quarters.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well and I felt like you could see some nerves early,” Bunch said. “We played hard. It just wasn’t our night.”
Downing hit a triple early in the second half to give the visitors a 21-14 lead, though WHS answered with five straight points and pulled to within two on a three from Faith Pickens.
Central, as it did throughout the contest, had an answer in the form of Addie Payton’s three.
Soon after, the Maroon Knights led 26-22 before Edge asserted herself to up her team’s advantage. A 5-foot-6 junior guard, Edge made two free throws at the 2:45 mark of the third, before converting a left-handed layup off her drive to the basket for a 30-22 advantage.
Landis then banked in a triple that cut Central’s lead to five, but Edge answered with a trey from the top of the key and made another driving bucket to help send the Maroon Knights to the fourth quarter on top, 35-27.
“Brooklyn is our captain and she was tremendous tonight,” Olejasz said.
Edge opened the fourth-quarter scoring with a layup for the first double-digit margin of the matchup, but the Yellowjackets got four consecutive points from Anna Conner to trail by six with 6:06 remaining.
Williamstown’s deficit was still six after Landis scored on a layup off her steal nearing the 5-minute mark, but the Yellowjackets failed to muster more offense until the game was out of reach.
Payton’s left-handed layup and Downing’s layup off her steal allowed Central to lead 43-33 with 4:16 remaining.
“Our game is to put pressure on the ball and we noticed when they got the ball to Pickens, a couple times she was throwing the ball high,” Olejasz said. “So we said if she got the ball we wanted to put pressure on her so we could grab that steal. That came to fruition.”
Another Downing basket from close range left the Yellowjackets down a dozen, and not until an Addisyn Kerby trey with 27 seconds remaining did Williamstown get beyond 33 points, at which time it trailed by nine.
“They were the better team tonight. It doesn’t take away from the season they had. A LKC championship and sectional championship,” Bunch said. “I’m proud of them. We’re a little down right now because we lost, but I felt like they played hard. We just couldn’t get things going. Kudos to Wheeling Central. They did a great job defensively and their four guards with one post player is sort of a matchup problem for us.”
Downing led all players with 20 points and made 8-of-12 shots.
“She was phenomenal,” Olejasz said. “Valerie did exactly what she had to do. We’ve moved her to a post position over the last couple games since Keiera Wilkinson broke her hand, and she has stepped up and done tremendous.”
Edge scored 14 points and added five rebounds. Lily Vogrin led Central with six boards.
Landis had a team-high 13 points in defeat, while Pickens added a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Although Williamstown outscored Central by 11 points at the free-throw line, the Yellowjackets shot less than 28 percent (10 for 36).
Back on January 14, Central won at Williamstown, 69-67.
“They came in knowing that they were going to this game,” Olejasz said. “They had no question and said, ‘We already got them and we’re going to get them again.’ I didn’t tell them that. They told me that.”