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Wheeling Central edges St. Marys to gain state berth

WHEELING, W.Va. — Championship teams are able to make the plays when the game is on the line.

Wheeling Central did just that Wednesday night, displaying unwavering poise in the final minutes to pull out a hard-earned 71-67 win over a quality St. Marys squad on Skip Prosser Court before a large and raucous crowd. In the process, the Maroon Knights captured the regional co-title and punched their ticket to the state tournament.

It marks the 12th straight year Mel Stephens has taken Central to Charleston. The affable mentor has six state crowns to his credit.

The game was tight throughout. Central owned a 55-52 lead entering what proved-to-be a wild final quarter.

St. Marys 6-2 super sophomore Grant Barnhart meshed two free throws with just over three minutes to play, giving the purple-clad Blue Devils a 64-61 lead. Central’s 6-5 post Clayton Abbott, who enjoyed a brilliant game, responded with a hoop to cut the deficit to one.

Barnhart followed with two more charity tosses before Maroon Knight junior dandy J.C. Maxwell goaled at the 2:14 mark, bringing the hosts to within 66-65. St. Marys went into delay mode and ran the clock down to 1:07 with William Steele being fouled at that juncture.

He meshed one-of-two, making it a 67-65 Blue Devil advantage.

Central responded in character fashion.

Abate took a perfect post-entry pass from Ryan Reasbeck, goaled while being fouled in the process at the 50.7 lighting. He meshed the free throw, giving the Maroon Knights a 68-67 edge.

St. Marys subsequently misfired from the field. Jalen Creighton rebounded with teammate Avery Lee being fouled with 21.9 showing. The savvy point guard converted both for a 70-67 Maroon advantage.

The Blue Devils failed to connect on a trey attempt with Central’s Michael Toepher grabbing the rebound before being fouled with 7.3 ticks to play. He meshed the first for a four-point lead, virtually icing the outcome.

“Having Clayton back was key. We felt we had a mismatch there. He was so much bigger than anyone they had,” Stephens said. “We knew St. Marys was a good basketball team coming in. They played well. They can shoot and they can move. They made it tough for us.

“Anytime the Barnhart kid had a little crack it was going in. Defensively, we got to get better. We must understand who can hurt us on the other team,” he added. “I told the kids that it showed a lot of character when we hung in there even when we weren’t playing our best, and still found a way in the end to get it done.”

Central boasted fine offensive balance with four players reaching double figures. Abbott led the way with 21 points while Reasbeck netted 18 markers. Lee finished with 13 tallies while Maxwell, who encountered first-quarter foul issues, bounced back to deliver 11-second half counters.

“We had to use our timeouts earlier then we liked and we didn’t have them at the end of the game when we needed them,” St. Marys head coach Mark Barnhart said. “This is the best game we have ever played on this floor. Our kids came to play.

“What I am must proud of is that we played to win. A play here or there could have made a big difference,” he added. “Central is a terrific team. They are very tough to beat in this gym.”

Barnhart, the coach’s son, finished with a game-high 32 points, including four treys. Steele delivered 14 points while Peyton Auxier chipped in with 13.

St. Marys ended with a fine 18-7 mark. Central, also 18-7, enters the state tourney as the No. 5 seed.

The Maroon Knights will take on No. 4 seed Clarksburg Notre Dame (19-6) next Thursday at 9 p.m.

“It is big going back to the state tournament. We obviously have some guys who have been there before but we also have some kids who will be going for the first time,” Stephens said. “Our feeling is you want to make it every year, so that the next year you know what it takes and it carries over. It’s going to be a really good field. I think anyone from 1-8 has a chance to win it.”

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