BECKLEY — Eight minutes away from Charleston and Woodrow Wilson refused to be denied.
Wiping out an eight-point second-quarter deficit, the Flying Eagles knocked off South Charleston 49-43 Wednesday night to win their Class AAAA Region 3 co-final battle at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.
The win sends Woodrow Wilson back to the state tournament after a two-year absence. The Flying Eagles are the No. 8 seed and will play Thursday, May 6, at 5:30 p.m. against No. 1 seed Morgantown.
Virtually given up for dead a month ago, the win capped an improbable run to the state tournament for Woodrow that included road wins at Princeton and Greenbrier East in the sectional tournament.
“This win is so satisfying. I just give all the credit to my kids and my assistant coaches,” Woodrow Wilson head coach Ron Kidd said. “Give them the credit. They got our kids ready and our kids got themselves ready.”
With one minute to play in the opening half, Woodrow Wilson found itself in some trouble.
Starting point guard Elijah Redfern sat for the majority of the second quarter with two fouls and the Flying Eagles’ offense sputtered. Over the first seven minutes of the second quarter, Woodrow had scored just one point to fall behind 23-15.
Senior Ben Gilliam then made the key play that turned the momentum of the game in favor of the home team. After converting two foul shots, Gilliam stepped in front of a pass at midcourt and raced to the basket for a slam dunk, causing a huge eruption from the Woodrow faithful.
Gilliam’s big play electrified not only the crowd, but also his teammates.
“I thought it turned the game around. If [South Charleston] had hit another shot and made it 25 or 26 points, that might have been tough on our confidence,” Kidd said. “Ben’s play kinda got us going. When we came in at halftime, I thought the momentum had turned a little towards us.”
South Charleston head coach Josh Daniel agreed that Gilliam’s play changed the game completely.
“We gave up an offensive rebound and a foul, then we turned it over when we were trying to hold for the last shot. That was a huge momentum swing,” Daniel said. “Our guys were a little down instead of up. We had the lead on the road. If you have the lead on the road with 16 minutes to go, you are in a good spot and we still hadn’t played well offensively.”
Kidd said the difference in his team, especially over the last month, has been its ability to listen to the coaches and believe what they are saying.
Gilliam’s play highlighted Kidd’s statement.
“[The coaches] were telling me to get up [on defense] where I was sitting back the whole game,” Gilliam explained. “I listened to them and I got the steal. That was a momentum changer for all of us.”
Trailing by four to open the second half, Woodrow came out of the gate on fire defensively, which fed its offense.
After two free throws cut the deficit in half, DeWayne Richardson scored on a runout from Maddex McMillen to tie the game.
Redfern was then fouled on a drive to the lane. His two free throws were followed by an offensive rebound from Gilliam, who fed Keynan Cook for the easy deuce.
“It was a defensive battle and offense was a struggle for both teams,” Daniel said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump. We were always playing from behind. Credit to them, they guarded and we didn’t make shots.”
The Black Eagles would tie the game just once more, but never regain the lead.
Woodrow Wilson spurted again to start the final quarter and led 41-34 when Gilliam was hit with his third and fourth fouls and was forced to sit down early in the period.
South Charleston’s massive height began to take its toll, cutting the lead back to four when Cayden Faurett rattled in a 3-ball at the 5:21 mark.
Kidd took the gamble and put Gilliam back in. The big redhead paid immediate dividends with back-to-back buckets, the second coming on a drive and dish from the freshman Redfern.
“I was praying he didn’t foul, but I still wanted him to go for the rebounds,” Kidd said. “Him being on the court was a big plus for us.”
Two scores from Wayne Harris, who had 17 for the Black Eagles, trimmed the lead to four, but the visitors would get no closer.
“I thought our kids played with a lot of poise tonight,” Kidd said. “Give them credit. I thought they handled the moment really well.”
After a rare two-year absence from the Capital City, Gilliam, who led the Flying Eagles with 20 points, was ecstatic after the game.
“It still hasn’t quite set in all the way. The only time I have been to states is my freshman year. We fell short my sophomore and junior year, so this is just an amazing feeling,” Gilliam said.
Richardson, Cook and Redfern all scored eight points apiece in the win.
D.J. Johnson led South Charleston with 19 points.