Neither Anthony Clendenin nor Justin Phillips played the last time George Washington met Huntington. But Patriots fans are sure glad their senior starters took the floor against the Highlanders Thursday night.
Clendenin’s putback with 45 seconds left proved to be the winning basket and Phillips sealed the victory with a steal in the final seconds, lifting GW to a thrilling 61-59 comeback victory in the Class AAA quarterfinals at the Charleston Civic Center.
The win sends No. 3 seed GW (21-3) into Friday’s 9 p.m. semifinal against upstart Musselman (20-6), the seventh seed that knocked off No. 2 Parkersburg South in the first round.
Bunky Brown’s 19 points led a balanced scoring effort for the Patriots, who had to rally from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter to avenge a regular-season loss to the No. 6 Highlanders (17-7), the defending state champions who have won three of the previous four AAA titles.
“It’s the heart of the kids,’’ said GW coach Rick Greene. “I don’t care if that’s cliche. It’s true. Everything that happened in that ballgame for us to win, it goes back to our kids, and they refused to lose. It’s not the coaches, it’s not the X’s and O’s. It’s a group of kids who want to play one more game, at least.’’
Momentum swayed wildly back and forth down the stretch Thursday.
After a closely contested first half, Huntington embarked on a 15-2 run between the second and third quarter to go ahead 43-30 early in the third period. GW immediately responded with a 17-4 burst to tie it at 47, only to see the Highlanders retaliate with an 8-0 surge for a 55-47 advantage as the third quarter was about to end.
“We knew it was going to be a battle,’’ said Huntington coach Ron Hess. “It went back and forth, and we let them back in it a couple times. Give them credit.’’
Mikal Dawson, the Highlanders’ senior all-stater and West Virginia player of the year candidate, torched GW for 20 first-half points and his coast-to-coast drive with 4:52 left in the game gave his team a 59-54 edge. However, it marked the final points of the night for Dawson, who finished with 24.
Turnovers proved detrimental to Huntington’s lead down the stretch as it tried to work time off the clock. Brown swiped the ball and scored with 3:12 remaining to bring GW within 59-57. A mere 27 seconds later, a Phillips steal turned into two free throws for Brown, tying the game at 59 with 2:45 to go. Brown went 8 of 8 at the line.
Each team missed a shot at the lead, and Dawson was then whistled for charging on a spin move in the lane, giving possession to GW with 1:24 remaining. Brown knifed into the lane for a leaning shot that missed, but Clendenin was right there for the stickback that gave the Patriots a 61-59 lead.
Dawson missed a shot at the other end and after a scramble, the ball went out of bounds to GW. The Highlanders fouled Matthew Cook, who misfired on two free throws with 16 seconds to go, giving Huntington one final chance to tie or win.
As Huntington worked the ball in the front court, Cook was able to get a hand on an attempted pass near the top of the key and Phillips gobbled up the ball and streaked downcourt, flinging the ball at the basket as time expired and the GW bench erupted.
The victory proved a bit sweeter, perhaps, for Phillips and Clendenin, who were both injured when the Highlanders beat GW 60-53 on Jan. 4 in Huntington. Phillips missed five games with a broken hand and Clendenin sat out 13 games after suffering a partial tear of his ACL and meniscus. He put off surgery in order to rehabilitate his knee and have a chance to finish his senior season.