The story on senior night on the Hill was half successful swan song for a trio of upperclassmen and half coming-of-age tale for three promising freshmen.
In the end, everyone in a George Washington uniform had reason to celebrate.
With reigning state player of the year Kalissa Lacy going cold in the second half and previously unbeaten No. 1 Huntington turning up the heat defensively, the No. 5 Patriots found enough answers to fend off a furious Highlanders rally in securing a 78-59 win in a Class AAAA top-five showdown on Monday night.
The win put GW (11-2) into the Mountain State Athletic Conference championship game slated for Saturday at South Charleston High School against No. 3 Cabell Midland. The Knights defeated GW 52-49 on March 11.
Just a few weeks removed from that defeat, Patriots coach Jamie LaMaster doesn’t believe his team is the same, referring to a fast and steady maturation that has come has the games have gone by. Judging by George Washington’s balance of scoring and play-making, particularly in a the second half on Monday, he may be right.
“This is a huge win,” LaMaster said. “That’s a great team, they’ve proved it all year and on senior night, what better way to send our seniors off. Great team win and the kids dialed in, they were focused and prepared and they executed tonight.”
Early, it appeared to be the Kalissa Lacy show per usual as the Morehead State commit poured in 23 points in the first half as George Washington jumped all over the Highlanders. Riding the early wave, George Washington took a 24-17 lead into the second quarter and then outscored Huntington 19-4 the rest of the half to take a 43-21 advantage into the locker room.
But as quickly as the Patriots jumped on top, Huntington (10-1) met the second half whistle with vigor and a new game plan, using a full-court press and a half-court trap to wreak havoc on GW’s offense. That switch not only led to turnovers and easy transition baskets, it also sped GW up so when the Patriots did successfully cross half court with the ball, shots that were made in the first half went begging. That was especially true for Lacy, who went 0 for 7 from the floor in the second half and contributed just three points, with all three of them coming at the foul line in the final 1:20. All told, GW committed 18 second-half turnovers with 13 coming in the third.
Meanwhile, Huntington’s own star guard, Dionna Gray, rediscovered her form after going scoreless in the second quarter and scored nine points during a 22-10 period for Huntington. The Highlanders drew as close as seven at 48-41 with a 20-5 run to begin the frame.
But with the Patriots desperately searching for an answer, they found it to answer the fourth-quarter bell in freshman forward Alaira Evans, who ripped off the first seven points of the period including a three-point play at the 5:11 mark to restore order somewhat, putting GW up 60-43.
“She’s been working on some things, we’ve been spending extra time on her and she’s put extra time in and she was due,” LaMaster said. “We know she has the ability and talent. It was due and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Over the past season or two, on the rare occasion that Lacy has gone cold, the Patriots have often frozen. But this time, GW didn’t blink.
Evans finished with 11 points and nine rebounds while fellow freshman Finley Lohan contributed 13 points to go with four assists and four steals. Senior point guard Vivian Ho added 15 points on an efficient 5-for-7 shooting with senior forward Mary Lyle Smith contributing eight points and eight boards. Macie Mallory, the third of GW’s vaunted freshman class, may have had the biggest shot of the third quarter, hitting a corner 3 to temporary squelch Huntington’s run.
Add in Lacy’s 26 and a combined 19-for-22 free-throw effort from Ho, Smith, Lohan and Evans and it was more than enough.
“Playing games is one thing, the biggest thing with these kids is number one, we’ve identified roles, and number two, they’ve accepted those roles,” LaMaster said. “It’s been going on all season but it fortunately it keeps progressively getting a little bit better and better each game and tonight was kind of the apex of that I think.”
Gray finished with 21 points to lead Huntington with Imani Hickman contributing 12 points and 12 rebounds. Kaiti Swann added 10 points for the Highlanders.