ST. MARYS The rug was pulled right out from under St. Marys' feet.
In a Class A, Region I contest Thursday night at Dan Greenleaf Gymnasium, Wheeling Central rallied from an eight-point deficit early in the fourth quarter and advanced to the state tournament after defeating the Blue Devils, 50-48.
The Maroon Knights, who improved to 13-12, managed to complete their comeback by committing not one single turnover in the final eight minutes after giving the ball away 20 times during the first three quarters.
"When it came down to crunch time, we took pretty care of the ball," Wheeling Central coach Mel Stephens said.
St. Marys' demise grounded in the fact it made just one field goal after taking a 43-35 lead on the team's only 3-pointer at the 7:17 mark of the fourth quarter.
"This one hurts a lot," St. Marys coach Mark Barnhart said. "This year, we've been in a lot of close games and we've always come out on the good side it seems like."
Despite Wheeling Central's momentum, St. Marys remained in front 48-46 with less than a minute left on the clock. In a game that witnessed eight lead changes and six ties, the Maroon Knights pulled even at 48 on a bucket in the paint by Brandon Wallace off an assist from reserve point guard Thomas Stanley at 52 seconds.
With 30.8 seconds showing, St. Marys used a timeout. Following the break, St. Marys point guard Andrew Cosper controlled the ball near half court but Stanley forced a five-second call and the Maroon Knights now had possession with 18 seconds to go.
David Park, who finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds and played the final 4 minutes with four personal fouls, took over the dribble after a Wheeling Central timeout and looked to penetrate toward the paint. However, St. Marys was called for a blocking foul and Park knocked down both ends of a one-and-one at 3.3 seconds for a 50-48 lead.
"Park is one of our main guys and when he picked up that fourth foul, I figured we might as well ride him as far as we can go," Stephens said. "He plays pretty smart, so I felt pretty comfortable he would be all right in there."
Coach Barnhart used his final timeout after the second foul shot dropped. Needing to go baseline-to-baseline, Jordan Whitehair inbounded the ball to Connor Lancaster, who paused momentarily before handing off the ball to teammate Colby Brode.
"Basically, we just wanted St. Marys to catch it going back toward our basket and not let them get anything toward theirs," Stephens said.
Brode took a couple of dribbles inside halfcourt and let loose a game-winning attempt, but the shot hit high and hard off the backboard.
"When Lancaster caught it, I don't know if that was their first option he looked a little confused on what he wanted to do with it," Stephens said. "We wanted to make sure we watched the shot and heard the horn -then it felt pretty good."
Austin Bayless led the Blue Devils (19-5) with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Whitehair, who was responsible for the Blue Devils' first five baskets of the game with three of his own and a pair of assists, finished with 12 points, three assists and two steals.
Brode added eight points, while Cosper finished with six points.
For Wheeling Central, Chase Harler scored 12 points, while Brandon Wallace pitched in eight points.
While the Maroons Knights await their first-round opponent for next week's state tournament at the Charleston Civic Center, St. Marys says good-bye to their three seniors (Cosper, Bayless and Whitehair). Cosper and Bayless were members of last season's state runner-up squad.
"You lose seven seniors from a season ago, and at first it didn't look good for this season," Barnhart said. "But little by little it kept getting better all the time."