CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Tucker County took full advantage of a decisive size advantage in Wednesday’s Class A quarterfinal against East Hardy.
In turn, the No. 3 Mountain Lions outscored the Cougars by 34 points in the paint and were plus-20 in rebounding to have their way in a 77-51 victory at the Charleston Coliseum.
“We wanted to be physical and really get at them early,” Mountain Lions’ head coach Daniel Helmick said.
The win sends TCHS (19-4) to a semifinal Friday, where the winner of No. 2 Tug Valley/No. 7 Wahama awaits.
With East Hardy (18-8) having qualified for the state tournament for the first time since 1996, it was only fair to assume jitters could plague the Cougars early as they adapted to a new stage and venue.
That appeared to be the case as the Mountain Lions built an 8-0 lead less than 2 minutes into the matchup, and Tucker hardly cooled off the remainder of the opening quarter, making 10-of-15 field-goal attempts and scoring 18 points in the paint.
“We had some good looks and they just didn’t go down. I don’t think we thought we were going to be as open as we were early,” East Hardy head coach Chris Hahn said. “Being in this gym, the excitement and adrenaline, probably affected our shots a little bit. Tucker put in a few wrinkles and they were successful attacking downhill on us early and getting the ball inside to his bigs.”
Five different Mountain Lions scored in the opening frame, including nine points from Trevan Bonner and eight from Ashton Lycliter.
“Going into warmups, I had to get my jump shot right and get confidence,” Bonner said. “I started with a few layups, shot a three and made it, and felt good from there.”
However, East Hardy settled in during the second quarter and ran off 10 straight points early in the frame to cut a 17-point deficit to 27-20. During the Cougars’ best stretch of the contest, J.W. Tweets and Dawson Price each made a three-pointer, while Price also scored inside and Evan Hamilton made two foul shots.
“We wanted to jump on them early and we did, but in the second quarter, we kind of backed off a little bit,” Helmick said. “We missed some bunnies. They play hard and really spread you and you have to close out. He did a nice job and hats off to them. They played hard.”
After EHHS pulled to within seven, Tucker’s Levi Bennett hit his first of four threes. Bennett’s second came just before halftime and allowed the Mountain Lions to enter the intermission leading 36-27.
“I went into the game with confidence and tried to execute,” Bennett said.
Still, in large part because half of its eight first-half field goals were from long distance, the Cougars remained within striking distance.
For East Hardy, which had lost two of three earlier meetings this season to Tucker, things took a turn for the worse early into the second half as the Mountain Lions pulled away to lead comfortably.
Bennett opened the third-quarter scoring with his third trey, and Owen Knotts added one less than 2 minutes later which left East Hardy facing a 44-31 deficit.
Bennett’s fourth and final triple made it 49-33, and the Cougars were held to two field goals in the frame, including none over the final 5:36 as Tucker led 59-36 with 8 minutes remaining.
“Coach Helmick has a special team. He really does,” Hahn said. “Ashton did a great job for them today inside. In the first three games, he was not much of a factor offensively. Especially early, he did a good job of attacking us inside.”
The Mountain Lions made 30-of-56 shots in the victory, including 6 of 13 from long range. Tucker scored 44 paint points to 10 for East Hardy, which made only 14-of-49 shots.
“I’ll take a 2 footer over a 25 footer any day,” Helmick said.
Bonner led all players and four double-figure scorers for Tucker with 17 points on 8-for-13 shooting. Bennett added 14 points in the win. Garrett Wilfong contributed 12 points and eight rebounds in a reserve role, while Lycliter totaled 10 points and eight boards. Maddox Anderson (9 points) and Knotts (8 rebounds) were other significant contributors in the win.
“We run a lot of team offense and don’t do a lot of isolating,” Helmick said. “We feel like if you have to guard us for a period of time, by the fourth quarter, we should be in pretty good shape. We’re unselfish and these kids share the ball.”
Price led East Hardy with 16 points. Tests scored 14 and Nate Smith added 11.
In addition to finishing with 42 rebounds to the Cougars’ 22, the Mountain Lions also had a 22-4 advantage in bench points.
“This has been one of the most fun teams to coach in my entire career,” Hahn said. “It was a good run.”
(Tucker County postgame press conference)