CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Spring Mills girls basketball coach George Gosk would’ve been hard-pressed to script a better first half for his team in Thursday’s Class AAAA semifinal against Wheeling Park at the Charleston Coliseum.
The No. 5 Cardinals had the top seed Patriots on the ropes and then some, combining a mixture of quality offense with lockdown defense to lead by as much as 19 at one point.
But the Patriots showed why they earned that distinction of being the No. 1 seed, and after clawing their way back to a 13-point halftime deficit, Wheeling Park put together a dominant second half to claim a 59-51 victory and spot in Saturday’s state title game.
“It’s a testament to these kids and their character,” Patriots’ head coach Ryan Young said. “I’m very proud.”
In the final, the Patriots (25-2) will face a familiar foe in Morgantown, which won earlier Thursday against Spring Valley. WPHS has defeated the Mohigans in three of four meetings thus far this season, though MHS eliminated the Patriots in a state semifinal a year ago.
“We should be playing for a state championship,” Young said. “We’re the two best teams in the state.“
Trailing 35-22 at halftime, the Patriots rode the sophomore duo of point guard Lala Woods and off guard Alexis Bordas to draw closer. The duo was responsible for their team’s first 15 points of the second half, a stretch that featured two three-pointers from Woods and nine points from Bordas.
Woods’ second triple during that stretch was followed by one from Bordas, trimming what had been a 10-point Spring Mills (21-1) advantage to 39-35.
“We knew that was not a good half for us and we had to come out with more energy than them,” Woods said. “We knew we had to step on their throats and that’s what we were able to do.”
Park’s Merritt Dell converted inside with 1:44 left in the quarter to account for the Patriots’ first points of the frame not provided by Bordas or Woods, and it allowed them to trail, 41-39.
Woods drained a triple 30 seconds later to give WPHS its first lead at 42-41, and though Corin Edsell answered with a trey for the Cardinals, a conventional three-point play from Natalie Daugherty allowed Young’s team to go to the fourth in front, 45-44.
“They were making fun of me after the game because I said you’re not going to get it all back in one quarter, and they did,” Young said.
Bordas scored the first five points of the final frame, including a three that allowed her team to lead 50-44 with 5:44 remaining.
Spring Mills sophomore sensation Kilah Dandridge answered with a bucket to bring her team to within four, but the Cardinals would get no closer down the stretch.
Daugherty’s midrange jumper moved the lead to six with 4:30 left and started a stretch of seven straight Patriots’ points, with Woods following with her sixth and final triple and Bordas adding two free throws that left Park leading by 11 at the 2:06 mark.
“Basketball is funny because sometimes it’s a tale of two halves,” Gosk said. “We wanted to perform like we did in the first half and obviously that didn’t happen for us. You want to come into the second half thinking it’s a tie game and you can keep performing the way you have.”
After being out-rebounded 25-19 in the first half, the Patriots narrowed the gap and held a 17-15 rebounding edge over the final two quarters.
“The ball bounced their way a good bit in the second half,” Gosk said. “Some of those rebounds led to open threes and credit to Wheeling Park, they were able to knock them down.”
Rebounding was one of several aspects that helped the Cardinals gain a sizable lead.
They flustered WPHS into 8-for-30 shooting in the opening half, while Bordas made only 1-of-9 attempts through two quarters.
“The game plan against Bordas — her name was Corin Edsell,” Gosk said. “She did a tremendous job defending her. Kilah also stepped in because you get tired and can’t do it the whole way. Knowing what type of player she is, we knew what we’d have to bring to the table and we did a tremendous job defending her.”
Spring Mills, meanwhile made seven field goals in the first quarter and led 19-10 through 8 minutes, before expanding on that advantage.
The Cardinals produced 12 of the first 14 points in the second quarter, with Dandridge providing half of those on one free throw, a triple and a jumper that left her team with the 31-12 advantage.
“We started slow and Spring Mills did a great job executing their game plan,” Young said. “They took us out of our game and we weren’t ourselves.”
But starting with Bordas’ first field goal, WPHS outscored SMHS 10-4 during a vital stretch to end the first half.
Woods led all players with 27 points and added five steals and six rebounds.
Bordas made 5-of-9 shots after halftime and scored 20 points to go with seven rebounds.
“We knew if we kept playing like how we were playing, we were not going to win the game,” Bordas said.
One day earlier, Bordas discovered she was named the West Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year.
“It’s really an honor that I appreciate it and I’m thankful for but the biggest goal is the state championship,” Bordas said. ”That player of the year doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win on Saturday.”
Daugherty scored 10 points and added four steals, while Dell had a team-high 10 rebounds.
For Spring Mills, Dandridge finished with 16 points in a matchup of teams with several standout sophomores.
“It was a great experience,” Dandridge said “They know the game of basketball and they know how to play it. Playing against them helps make you a better player.”
Freshman Reagan Edsell totaled 12 points and game highs of 17 boards and five blocks, proving the stage was anything but too big for her.
Corin Edsell gave the Cardinals a third double-figure scorer with 11 points.
“What a team and what a season. We came up a little short and we’d love to be there Saturday, but it didn’t happen for us,” Gosk said. “I’m not going to sell out our season. What a heck of a season to go 21-1. Someone had to lose that game.”
(Wheeling Park postgame press conference)