F. Brian Ferguson
George Washington's Rachel Ward (left) drives to the basket as Preston's Kaitlyn Workman defends.
BECKLEY - This is traditionally the time of year when George Washington kicks its season into high gear, and this year seems to be no different.
The Patriots continued their late-season push by disposing of Preston 59-48 Thursday evening in the girls division of the 24th Big Atlantic Classic. A crowd of about 300 attended the Class AAA matchup of state-ranked teams at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.
The Patriots (12-4), who were No. 10 in this week's Associated Press poll, will take on Parkersburg South at 4 p.m. Saturday in the championship game. South pounded AA Nicholas County 66-36 earlier Thursday.
GW has been up and down most of the season, but has now won six in a row and seems to be gaining steam as it pushes toward another state tournament appearance. The Patriots have advanced to the state semifinals the past two seasons.
"Oh yeah, we've really picked it up,'' said GW junior post Kelli Jo Harrison, who turned in 13 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. "We've been working harder in practice. Toward the middle of the season, that's when we get on a roll and get hot. We work a lot better together than we did at the beginning of the season.
"We've started to make our shots and we're passing the ball real well right now. We're working as a team. I think it's going to work out real well for us.''
Harrison said the Big Atlantic atmosphere is just what the team needed.
"It prepares us for the state tournament,'' she said. "The crowd, it's kind of nerve-wracking to be out there playing in front of a bunch of people under the lights. It's really distracting, so it's really good for us."
After a slow start in taking a 10-8 lead in the opening quarter, the Patriots got red hot in the second period, sinking 9 of 17 shots and racing out to a 14-point advantage (31-17) at halftime. Senior guards Rachel Ward and Kayla Stewart nailed back-to-back 3-pointers to start the barrage.
Harrison and Stewart teamed up to knock down back-to-back treys early in the third quarter, and sophomore point guard Alanna Mobayed finished off the 9-3 run with a driving layup, to give the Patriots their biggest edge at 19 points (42-23) with 4:37 left in the period.
No. 7 Preston (9-3) pulled within 10 points early in the fourth quarter as senior Jesse Feather converted 3 of 4 free-throw attempts, but the Knights couldn't get any closer. They had several opportunities, but made just 3 of 12 shots in the final period. GW sank 9 of 12 foul shots to keep Preston at bay.
Mobayed, who finished with eight points, five assists, five rebounds, one block and one steal, sat out the entire fourth quarter after banging her face off the court late in the third period. She is expected to return for Saturday's title game.
Ward scored 16 points on 5 of 10 shooting and came up with four steals. Patriots senior center Leslie Gilmore chipped in nine rebounds and sophomore guard Hailey Stewart contributed seven points and four assists.
"It's always nice to go to a neutral environment against an unfamiliar opponent and see how you respond,'' said GW coach Jamie LaMaster, who saw his team shoot 54.5 percent after the break. "I thought they played well at times.
"It gives us an opportunity to play in the championship, which was our goal coming down here. It's a good experience. It'll give us good mental preparation for where we need to be and how we need to play.''
Preston 6-foot-2 senior Mary Braham netted 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while sophomore Alexis Schoolcraft added 11 points and five boards and Feather finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
"The first game we've played in two weeks,'' said Preston coach Brian Miller, whose squad made only 28.8 percent of its shots, including 26.1 percent in the first half. "We've had every game canceled [because of weather] and I think in the second quarter that showed.
"We were a little winded and didn't have our game legs. You can practice as hard as you can, but practicing against our JV, that's not GW. We haven't shot that bad all year except one time. [GW] was smarter than we were. Everything we talked about didn't translate.''
Miller said the Big Atlantic Classic was a good proving ground for the Knights.
"We have not had a game decided by single digits,'' he said. "We have won every game by 12 points or more. I was really interested to come down here and see. You get a George Washington or Parkersburg South. Now, you're going to find some things out.
"To be honest, I walked into the game not sure we could compete with [George Washington]. I don't think they were better than us skill-wise. They were smarter than us. They have the state tournament experience and that's where we're trying to get.''
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.