BECKLEY — Woodrow Wilson and St. Albans entered Tuesday’s Class AAA Region 3 boys basketball co-final clash with vastly different historical resumés.
The Flying Eagles were looking to make the state tournament in hopes of winning the 17th state championship in school history, including their third under current coach Ron Kidd.
On the other hand, a rapidly improving Red Dragons squad, under third-year coach Bryan England, was looking to make the state tournament for the first time since 2004.
History was on the side of the visitors thanks to stellar play from Ethan Clay and Rodney Toler. The senior duo combined for 43 points to lead St. Albans to a 68-53 upset win over Woodrow Wilson.
The regional setback was the second in a row for Woodrow Wilson, the first time that has happened since the 1986-87 season.
“This is big for us,” England said. “It is year three of me being with them. These seniors were sophomores coming in and they have been through so much. Where we started from and where we are now, it is just tremendous.
“Having the opportunity to be here with these guys and make a memory that they will have for a lifetime is something that I am very thankful for.”
Trailing 9-8 with two minutes left in the first quarter, St. Albans ended the quarter on an 8-0 run when Clay gave the Red Dragons the lead with a key 3-pointer and Toler scored five straight.
Woodrow Wilson (17-8) could never regain the lead the rest of the way.
“[St. Albans] had us off our game all night. We never were in sync,” Kidd said.
The Red Dragons (17-8) pushed the lead to 11 points early in the second quarter and maintained a 26-17 advantage at the break.
Coming in a heavy underdog, England’s message was the same that it had been all postseason.
“It was the same thing we told them against Capital, the same thing we told them against [George Washington],” England said. “Just believe. You can’t step on the court one time and not believe that you can win. I think the mindset tonight was the difference for us.”
Buckets from Toler and Clay pushed the lead to 13 just over a minute into the second half before Woodrow started to finally find the range, cutting the lead back to six points on two buckets from Ben Gilliam and a triple from Ayden Ince.
“Our defense has been stellar all year. I think our opponents are only averaging 47 points per game,” England said. “[Defense] has been a strength of ours. We knew we were going to come out and play hard, but we knew [Woodrow was] going to come out swinging in the second half. They punched us a couple times and we were able to withstand those.”
With the Flying Eagles gaining momentum, Toler squashed the run with two big 3s to restore order for the Red Dragons.
“My mindset was I needed to take over for my team, so we could get where we needed to be,” Toler said. “The past few years we kinda came up short as a team in that area and I wanted to get us where we need to go.”
“He was big for us,” England said of Toler’s play at crunch time. “I just wish people knew what that kid has been through. He has been through some of the most adversity you have ever heard of in life. The fact that he is able to experience this right now is amazing. I am really glad for him.”
A 3-pointer from Drew Reed just before the third-quarter horn pushed the lead back to nine points for St. Albans. Jaimelle Claytor scored four straight points to open the final eight minutes and the lead never dropped back to single digits.
“We just worked hard all season for this,” Toler said. “We have been struggling for the past few years and to get the win, it really feels great.”
St. Albans will be the No. 8 seed in the state tournament and will play No. 1 seed University in the quarterfinals at 7:15 Wednesday, March 18 at the Charleston Coliseum. The upstart Red Dragons will again be a heavy underdog.
“We can’t do anything but focus on us getting better and continue buying in to what Coach England is telling us,” Toler said. “Then we can let our game do the talking.”