Physical play helps Tucker County get past Panthers, 71-58

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Tucker County doesn’t hide from the fact that it prefers to play a physical style.

In Friday’s Class A semifinal against No. 2 Tug Valley, the No. 3 Mountain Lions used that physicality to their advantage, and it helped lead to a 38-25 rebounding edge in a 71-58 victory over the Panthers at the Charleston Coliseum.

“We want to pound you, guard you, rebound and try to take care of the ball,” Mountain Lions’ head coach Daniel Helmick said. “When we’ve done that, we’ve won a lot of games doing it that way.”

With the result, Tucker County (20-4) will play in Saturday’s Class A title game against the winner of No. 1 James Monroe/No. 4 Clay-Battelle. The Mountain Lions are seeking the program’s first state championship.

A key stretch of the contest came over the final 2-plus minutes of the opening half, when TCHS took control of the game by outscoring the Panthers, 12-1.

Tug Valley (23-4) led 20-16 following an Ashton Davis three-pointer, but a triple from the Mountain Lions’ Owen Knotts 2:16 before halftime created a one-point deficit again for Tucker.

It also began that 12-1 spurt, with a triple from Levi Bennett following and enabling the Mountain Lions to lead, 22-20.

Knotts added a jumper 40 seconds before halftime and Bonner followed with a layup 16 seconds later to make it 10 straight Tucker points.

Although Braydun Ferris made 1-of-2 free throws to end Tucker’s run of unanswered points, Bonner scored again 3 seconds before halftime, allowing the Mountain Lions to enter the break with a 28-21 advantage.

“We let it get away from us a little bit at the end of the first half,” Tug Valley head coach Garland “Rabbit” Thompson said.

Bonner scored 13 points through the first two quarters on 6-for-9 shooting.

“Dribble penetration is what I do best so I dribble penetrated, hit a layup and they closed in on that,” Bonner said. “After seeing it once, I can kick adjust or kick it out to our three-point shooters.”

TCHS began the second half in strong fashion and took its biggest lead to that point at 38-27 on an Ethan Rosenau trey at the 5:07 mark.

The Panthers fought back over the remainder of the quarter and pulled to within 43-39 on Buddy Marcum’s conventional three-point play 32 seconds before the start of the fourth.

A key basket from Bennett in response allowed Tucker to hold a six-point lead with 8 minutes remaining.

Tug Valley ran off seven straight points to start the fourth for its first lead since the opening half. That stretch featured back-to-back layups from Marcum and a conventional three-point play from Ferris, a freshman.

But immediately after gaining a one-point lead, the Panthers allowed the Mountain Lions to score nine straight points, putting Tucker on top to stay.

That stretch began with Bennett’s second-chance basket, and Bonner followed with a bucket at the 5:47 mark. Another second-chance basket from Ashton Lycliter made it 51-46, before Rosenau canned a triple.

Parker Davis’ three in response momentarily stopped the momentum for Tucker, but Maddox Anderson countered by connecting from long range, allowing the Mountain Lions to again lead by eight.

“A very, tough physical game. Give Tucker all the credit,” Thompson said. “They’re a very tough basketball team. They hit a lot of big threes but that’s what well-rounded teams do.”

Tug Valley got as close as five when Marcum scored inside with 2:14 left, but the Panthers never made another field goal, and the Mountain Lions got a critical second-chance bucket from Lycliter after he offensive rebounded a missed free throw and put it back in with 1:47 left for a 63-55 lead. 

“We tell our big guys all the time there’s a good chance we’re going to miss, you better go get it,” Helmick said. “They went and got it.”

Another Lycliter layup 32 seconds later helped seal the verdict, allowing the Mountain Lions to move on to a state title game for the first time since 2004.

“I knew we’d get better,” Helmick said of the Mountain Lions, who won four games three seasons ago. “But I didn’t know in four years we’d get to the state final.”

Bonner scored a game-high 22 points and made 10-of-15 shots. Bennett added 13 to go with seven rebounds. Rosenau scored 11 off the bench and made three of his team’s seven triples, playing a pivotal part in the Mountain Lions outscoring the Panthers by 15 points from behind the arc.

“You have to guard him. He’s done a heck of a job. He’s a tough kid. He doesn’t get rattled and if you leave him open, he’s going to make most of them,” Helmick said. “A big lift off the bench.”

Lycliter made it a fourth double-figure scorer with 10 points and he led all players with 10 boards.

“We personally think we have three of the better bigs in the state so it helps a lot practicing against other good bigs,” Lycliter said. “It prepares you for these moments.”

The Panthers also had four double-figure scorers with Marcum’s 13 points a team high. He also led Tug Valley with seven rebounds.

Ferris (12), Joey Gollihue (11) and Parker Davis (10) followed Marcum in scoring.

“I’d say it’s the most physical game I’ve played all year,” Marcum said. “Lycliter is tough and a good opponent. Probably one of the strongest boys I’ve gone up against in my entire career.”

Tucker shot 26 for 47 overall to Tug Valley’s 38 percent at 19 for 50.

Of the six Mountain Lions to make multiple field goals, at least five shot 50 percent or better.

“They were very physical. Lycliter is a man amongst boys in there,” Thompson said. “They did hammer us inside.”

(Tucker County postgame press conference)

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