CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- George Washington can check off one of its goals for the season.
Senior guard Rachel Ward scored a team-high 20 points, including all four free-throw attempts in the final 69 seconds, as the host Patriots held off Princeton 61-56 Saturday night to lock up the Mountain State Athletic Conference East Division championship. A crowd of about 300 attended the Class AAA matchup of state-ranked teams.
GW, which won the East Division for the third time in four years with a 5-0 record, also secured a spot in the title game of the conference's Night of Champions next Saturday at the South Charleston Community Center. The No. 8 Patriots (13-6), who have lost in their previous two title-game appearances, will play West Division winner and No. 4 Huntington (17-4) at 6 p.m.
The Patriots still have an East Division game remaining with Capital, but they own the tiebreaker over Parkersburg (5-1) with a home win Jan. 29 while Princeton now has two losses in the division for a 4-2 mark. The Big Reds and the Tigers have also both completed division play.
"It means a lot,'' said Ward of winning the division. "We've just reached one of the goals we've been working towards all year. We still have more after this, but this is our first goal. We want to get to that championship and be able to win a conference championship, not just the East.''
Ward nailed a 3 during a 7-0 run late in the fourth quarter that put GW ahead 57-50 with 1:47 left. The lead could have been bigger but the Patriots missed three foul shots. That left the door open for the Tigers, who came crashing through as senior guard McKenzie Akers buried a 3 to slice the deficit to 57-53 with 1:15 remaining.
Princeton was forced to foul and Ward converted a pair at the charity stripe with 1:09 to go. Akers sank another 3, this time from about 25 feet, to pull the Tigers within three points (59-56) with 43.6 seconds left. GW sophomore guard Alanna Mobayed was fouled with 33.2 seconds remaining but missed both attempts.
The Tigers put up four 3-pointers but missed them all, including three attempts from Akers. Mobayed finally forced a steal along the sideline after the Tigers secured yet another rebound, but Ward came up with the ball and was fouled with 9.2 seconds to go. Ward coolly made both to set the final score.
"We kicked our defense in,'' said Ward, who helped check Princeton into 28.2 percent shooting in the second half. "We knew that [Princeton] depends on the 3 and if we shut the 3 down that would be easier.
"It just happened that they missed a couple of shots. Our effort and attitude has changed completely. We've been working on the little things. We've been playing full games, not just halves. All the effort and attitude has just been great.''
GW junior post Kelli Jo Harrison added 17 points and nine rebounds while senior center Leslie Gilmore turned in a season-high 15 points and 10 boards. Mobayed turned in seven points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.
The Patriots were coming off two tough losses - a 57-56 setback on a last-second buzzer-beater to No. 1 and defending state champion Greenbrier East on Thursday and a 68-43 loss to Parkersburg South on Feb. 2 in the co-championship game of the Big Atlantic Classic.
"That was a huge step,'' said GW coach Jamie LaMaster, who has guided the Patriots to the state semifinals the past two seasons. "I really, really have to praise my seniors. I have four four-year seniors and three of those years they've won the East Division. Now, we've got to win [a conference title]."
Akers finished with a game-best 32 points on 12-of-36 shooting, including six 3s, and added six rebounds for No. 5 Princeton (15-4). Senior guard Jessica Inman chipped in 14 points and six boards.
"We didn't make good choices,'' said Princeton coach Debbie Ball. "We had to battle all game. Our size doesn't help us. We didn't crash the boards throughout the game, which hurt us. GW does make you play a different game.''
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4811.