In fighting through familiar opponents Bridgeport and North Marion, Fairmont Senior earned a third straight chance at capturing its first state title since a Class AAA crown in 1997.
All tournament long and especially on Saturday, the Polar Bears proved just how deadly they could be when given extra chances.
No. 2 Fairmont Senior punctuated three days of rebounding dominance with a 40-33 advantage over No. 1 Bluefield, converting 18 offensive boards into 17 points along the way and earning a 54-42 win.
For seniors Erica Bowles and Abby Stoller especially, the climb had been long and hard with a semifinal loss and two straight championship game losses on their ledgers.
The two, and the rest of the Polar Bears (24-4), played like a team determined not to repeat history, swarming the Beavers with pressure defense and the glass with reckless abandon in bludgeoning Bluefield into eventual submission.
“Our ladies, they had a great mindset,” Fairmont coach Corey Hines said. “They came into this tournament with two familiar opponents and a lot of doubt. There were a lot of people out there doubting us. There were people who bought tickets just to root against us.
“They took their time, handled their business, went in there and played like champions all weekend.”
Sophomore Anysa Jordan was at the forefront of the rebounding onslaught both on Saturday and all tournament long. She finished with 12 boards (six offensive) to go with 17 points.
Over the course of three games, the Polar Bears piled up 61 offensive rebounds, scoring 55 of their 184 points off those second chances, just shy of 30 percent of their total output.
“Second-chance shots are good, but I always like to make it on the first,” Jordan said with a laugh. “I think that’s definitely one of our strongest points. We don’t give up a rebound. We get four or five shots if we don’t make it. It’s just we want it.”
“You don’t want to give Erica Bowles, Anysa Jordan or Abby Stoller second or third opportunities, they’re going to get you,” Hines added. “We always preach instead of jumping on the people taking the jump shots and missing, you want to jump on the people that’s rebounding. Hit the boards, give your team second and third opportunities, get the putback. I think a lot of that is desire and heart, and they showed that.”
Bowles and Stoller, the team’s only two seniors, had dealt with the disappointment of three straight state tournament losses and two in a row in the final game.
The two made big contributions all week and on Saturday, with Bowles going for a game-high 23 points and eight rebounds and Stoller adding six points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, three steals and a pair of assists.
Bowles began breaking down as she shot free throws in the final minute and Stoller followed soon after, tearing up as she dribbled out the clock.
The two found each other as the horn sounded, sharing a moment Stoller said was special to say the least.
“It means everything,” Stoller said. “All the hard work in practice finally paid off and all the sprints we ran. It’s a great feeling. It’s amazing. I feel like I’m dreaming.”
The teams played about as close a first quarter as possible, with neither team leading by more than two, and after eight minutes it was a tie game at 12.
But the second quarter was a completely different story as Fairmont Senior scored the first 11 points of the period and outscored the Beavers 15-3 to take a 27-15 lead emphatically into the locker room.
The last play of the half was telling as the Polar Bears ripped down five offensive rebounds on one trip, finally resulting in a layup for Stoller with six seconds left to provide the 12-point margin.
It was reiterated again with 33.7 seconds left as Bowles, trying to salt the game away from the foul line, missed on the second attempt, only to have it rebounded by Stoller, who missed, then rebounded by Jordan, who laid it in and was fouled.
Along the way, Bluefield piled up 17 turnovers and could never quite seem to settle into the flow of its offense, something coach Tony Mallamaci confirmed afterward.
“They have a tremendous pressure defense and we couldn’t get into our offense, they’d push us so far out,” Mallamaci said. “We blocked out pretty good but still yet, if you block out and you have arms above you, you’re still not going to get the amount of rebounds you would get if you’re even in size.”
Jasia Smith scored 12 points to pace the Beavers (23-3) with Autumn Spangler and Dani Janutolo adding 10 points apiece.
Janutolo fouled out in the late going and Spangler, Smith and Jia Coppola all finished with four fouls, hindering a bit of the aggression Bluefield usually puts behind its pressure.