CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As time expired in Friday’s Class AA semifinal, Charleston Catholic head coach Hunter Moles took a moment to gather himself just before the Irish and Yellowjackets lined up to shake hands.
The No. 4 Irish had just knocked off the top seed, holding off a furious Williamstown rally to secure a 57-54 win and handing the Yellowjackets their first and only loss this season at the Charleston Coliseum.
“This is crazy. We play for a state championship tomorrow,” Moles said.
Indeed, the Irish do, and they secured their spot in Saturday’s Class AA final, fittingly, on St. Patrick’s Day.
“When I woke up this morning, I felt good and really confident,” said Irish junior Jayallen Turner, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day and we’re the Irish. I knew all my guys had my back. Coach was telling me I’m him before the game and I was just going off of that.”
The Irish (20-5) await the winner of No. 2 Bluefield/No. 3 Chapmanville in Saturday’s title game. While they led for the entirety of the fourth quarter, there were plenty of tense moments late as a result of a late charge from Williamstown.
Ultimately, WHS (25-1) pulled to within 55-54 on Alex Irvin’s layup with 50 seconds left.
Following a CCHS turnover with 16 seconds to play, the Yellowjackets got the ball back with the chance to take a late lead.
Out of a timeout, Parker Schramm attacked the basket but couldn’t finish a close range look. Payton Bunch had a second-chance opportunity, but his follow-up also missed the mark and was rebounded by Catholic’s Max Wilcox.
Wilcox then sank two free throws with less than 1 second remaining, and the Yellowjackets were unable to get off a final shot.
“We ran a flat screen for Parker and he made a play to get into the paint,” Williamstown head coach Scott Sauro said. “We wanted him to get into the paint. We were in the double bonus. He really took it hard to the rim just like we asked him to and we were fortunate to get an offensive rebound and we went pretty strong on that one, too. I understand why they didn’t call that one. Obviously we wanted that one, but if the ref didn’t see it, it wasn’t there.”
The Irish led 40-34 through three quarters, but Schramm hit a three-pointer to open the final frame and cut his team’s deficit in half.
Catholic countered with the next five points on a bucket from Turner and a Wilcox trey.
The Irish still led by eight after Wilcox split two free throws with 3:24 remaining to make it 49-41, and his layup 46 seconds later left Williamstown trailing 51-43.
But starting with a Jayden Bryant triple in response, the Yellowjackets scored seven straight points, and they trailed by one following Schramm’s layup with 1:49 left.
Kelan Swan answered with a clutch bucket and Wilcox made two free throws 17 seconds later, but the Irish would still need a final stop to move on.
“That’s how we want to win — getting a stop,” Moles said. “Defense is us.”
The largest lead of the opening half was eight, held by the Irish on three occasions — 19-11, 22-14 and 26-18.
However, Williamstown got five points from Schramm along with a Cruz Isaly layup to score the final seven points of the half, allowing it to trail 26-25 at the break.
“We got down seven or right in the first half and kind of dug ourselves a hole, and against Charleston Catholic, it’s difficult to go on a run, because they’re really good in the half court defensively,” Sauro said. “It felt like we were trying to dig out of that hole all day long. That being said, we dug out of it.”
Sauro’s team carried that momentum over into the second half, which it began on a 6-2 run to lead 31-28 after Irvin scored inside.
But starting with a jumper from Wilcox at the 5:11 mark of the frame, the Irish outscored the Yellowjackets 12-3 over the remainder of the third. Turner, who scored at least four points in all four quarters, had two buckets during that stretch.
“If they’re forcing me one way, I try to read the second guy also if I can get past the first one,” Turner said. “It’s a little bit of will and patience.”
“He’s a hard guy to guard,” Sauro added. “You know he’s going downhill and he goes downhill anyway.”
Two years after the Irish lost in the final seconds of a state semifinal to Poca when former Dots’ standout Isaac McKneely made a three in the final seconds, Catholic broke through and now plays for its fourth state championship and first since 2012.
“I have to give credit to Williamstown. They’re a very good program,” Moles said. “I have a lot of respect for those coaches. They’re very good at what they do. Both teams played very well and that’s what you want to see this time of the year.”
Turner made 9-of-14 shots and added three steals.
“He’s that guy man,” Moles said. “He does a little bit of everything. He’s getting a lot of different coverages and looks and staying poised. What I really like is only one turnover. The ball is in his hands a lot. You have to tell Jay every once in a while, ‘you’re that guy.’”
Wilcox led all players with 21 points and it came on 6-for-9 shooting, while he made 7-of-8 free throws.
Zaden Ranson, a freshman, contributed seven points and eight boards in the win.
Schramm, a sophomore, finished with a team-high 18 points and five steals. Irvin added 11 points, but no other Yellowjacket totaled more than four, though all 11 that saw the floor scored.
Irvin is one of two seniors on this year’s WHS roster.
“This is the best group of kids I’ve ever been around. They’re so unselfish and they’re the hardest-working group I’ve seen throughout my basketball career,” Irvin said. “They’ll be back and better next year.”
The Yellowjackets were held to 18-for-46 shooting and were within one point of tying their single-game season low.
“They can put really effective pressure on the ball and their guys are strong and quick enough to slide laterally and they give great help,” Sauro said of the Irish. “They help on the weak side really well and they close out under control as good as anybody we’ve seen all year.”
Catholic finished with a 34-18 edge in paint points to with a 33-27 rebounding advantage.
“We work on late-game situations a lot in practice and it helped us today,” Moles said. “We’re trying to be where our feet are and enjoy the moment as much as we can.”
(Charleston Catholic postgame press conference)