Wheeling Central's Thomas Stanley (12) reaches for the ball as Charleston Catholic's Garret McCarty dribbles upcourt.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston Catholic coach Bill McClanahan has faced Wheeling Central enough to know that he wouldn't be seeing the same team Friday morning that his squad beat by 20 points during the regular season.The veteran Fighting Irish coach was dead on.Third-seeded and defending state champion Catholic knocked down enough free throws in the final minute to hold off No. 7 Wheeling Central 61-55 in the Class A semifinals at the Charleston Civic Center.The Irish (24-3), who advanced to their eighth title game in nine years, will take on No. 1 Tug Valley (24-3) at noon today in the championship game at the Civic Center. Catholic, which won titles in 2006, 2007 and 2012, lost to Tug Valley by 23 points (61-38) during the Shootout at the Big House in mid-February at the Civic Center, but McClanahan had to miss the game because of other obligations.Central (14-13) saw its surprising run in the tourney come to an end after upsetting No. 2 Magnolia in the quarterfinals.Catholic seemed to be in control with an 11-point lead late in the third quarter, but the Maroon Knights stormed back to pull within three points late in the fourth period. The Irish, though, scored the next six points and hit 8 of 12 foul shots in the final minute to seal the victory."We knew Wheeling Central was going to play well,'' said McClanahan, whose team hung a 62-42 loss on the Knights in early February. "They destroyed Magnolia [58-35 in the quarterfinals]. What we experienced with them in the regular season was no indication of what was to come.
"We tried to prepare and get ready for what we knew was going to be a war. I was really pleased we were able to respond to that. Even though we didn't make some good decisions in certain situations, the bottom line is overall I thought we played smart. Most of all, we made free throws when we needed to just to keep enough separation.''Freshman Chase Harler knocked down a pair of free throws as Central closed to 47-44 with 3:16 left in the game. The Irish used a 6-0 spurt to stretch the lead to 53-44 with 1:38 to go on senior forward Zack Casto's putback and junior point guard Garret McCarty's two foul shots and driving layup. McCarty only played 20 minutes because of a stomach virus and dehydration.The Maroon Knights kept within striking distance, and when Catholic missed two free throws with 11.2 seconds remaining the door was left ajar. Central was unable to walk through the opening as junior David Park saw his straight-on 3-point attempt hit the back of the rim and Casto rebounded. After getting fouled, Casto made both shots from the charity stripe with 3.1 seconds left to set the final score.
Catholic converted 24 of 35 shots at the foul line to offset 38.6 percent shooting from the floor.The Irish have quite a history with Wheeling Central after squaring off in title games in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009, in addition to playing each regular season."You just have to keep playing hard, playing smart, play together and things will start to roll and start to click,'' Catholic senior Nick George said of facing Central. "We just had to keep pushing and keep enduring. There's no better feeling. It was our goal from the beginning of the season to be playing on the last Saturday [of the season].''Central shot just 38.8 percent, including 3 of 15 on 3-pointers, and made 16 fewer trips to the foul line than the Irish, who hit 14 of 19 from there."Their ability to get to the foul line early gave them opportunities to score points and kept them in the game,'' Central coach Mel Stephens said of Catholic. "It seems like toward the end every loose ball they were able to come up with somehow. We played from behind the whole time, but give my kids credit, they never quit. They battled to the end.''
Catholic's George finished with a game-high 24 points behind a 13-of-18 effort at the foul line while Casto continued his stellar play at states with his second consecutive double-double, turning in 16 points and 15 rebounds, including six offensive boards. Irish senior David Godwin picked up the slack at guard with nine points, three assists and three steals while a slowed McCarty contributed seven points and four steals."We had guys step up that we don't normally see play those roles,'' McClanahan said. "I thought David Godwin did an absolutely phenomenal job of stepping in and running the point and trying to take control of the floor and manage the game. I thought that was huge for us. Andy Hoyer and Nelson McKown off the bench gave us good minutes.''Park scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds for Central. Harler contributed 15 points, 10 boards and three blocks and senior Brandon Wallace pitched in 12 points and 10 caroms."They should be proud of the accomplishment,'' Stephens said of his players. "There weren't very many people that gave us a chance to get out of our section or region. To be able to get down here, get a win and get to the semis is just a tribute to these 12 guys in the locker room.''Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.