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Ritchie County defeats Wirt, claims program’s first state tourney berth

Photo by Jay W. Bennett Ritchie County’s Isaac Slater, left, handles the ball as Wirt County’s Nathan Murray defends during a high school boys basketball regional co-final Thursday. Ritchie won, 59-33.

ELLENBORO — Ethan Haught scored a game-high 18 points, Aiden Murphy drained a trio of 3s in the second quarter and host Ritchie County ran past Wirt County, 59-33, here Thursday night in a Class AA, Region I co-final as the Rebels advanced to the state tournament for the first time in school history.

The Rebels, who finished No. 11 in the Associated Press poll, will carry an 11-6 record into next week’s state tournament in Charleston. Ritchie County earned the No. 6 seed and will take on third-seeded Charleston Catholic at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday.

Nathan Murray led the Tigers (8-12) with nine points and his free throw 60 seconds into the game gave the orange and black their only lead at 1-0.

Haught answered 20 seconds later to give the hosts the lead for good when his floater in the lane bounced around the iron and dropped through. Thanks to four points from Isaac Slater and a trey by Wyatt Flesher for part of his 12 counters, the Rebels jumped ahead 9-1 and forced a Tiger timeout.

Wirt County, which was trying to reach the big dance for the first time since 2008, used buckets by Slayden Turpin, Murray and Zay Fasogbon to cut it to 9-7, but Flesher assisted on a Haught lay-in for an 11-7 lead after one.

Consecutive 3s by Murphy, who finished with nine points, just 27 ticks apart was followed by a Kolton DePinho putback as the Rebels went ahead 19-8. Connor Hoover’s bucket stopped the run, but Graden McKinney found Murphy open for another bomb. McKinney, who finished with a dozen points, converted a three-point play with 10.3 seconds left in the half for a 27-11 bulge. Fasogbon was playing tight defense and was called for the foul as McKinney elevated, hung in the air and managed to drop his rainbow baseline shot through the cylinder.

“It’s great to be the first team to ever do it and the first team to win a regional,” said McKinney, who went into intermission with his teammates up 27-12 after Tiger Donovan Roberts made a late foul shot.

“It’s great to be the first team to do everything. It’d been better if we had (fellow senior Blaine) Bowie, but he’ll be here for Charleston.”

Neither Little Kanawha Conference program was at full strength as Ritchie County was down their regular starter Bowie and the Tigers were without guards Brandon Richards and DeShawn Middleton.

The Tigers, who shot just 23.8% (10 of 42), won the third quarter by a 12-10 margin and closed it to 35-23 following a deep 3 by Dylan Lowe. However, the hosts led 37-24 entering the fourth.

Flesher opened the final stanza with a wide open 3 and following a three-point by Haught and then a Haught trifecta, the Rebels were in complete control up 48-26 midway through the quarter.

“I just wanted to win so I knew I had to come out and hit shots,” noted Murphy. “Practice. Shoot. That’s what I’m good at, shooting, so just hit shots, got us a little lead and we just held it.

“It’s crazy. I’m going to remember it forever the first time we went to state. Everyone is going to remember it.”

In a rare event late in the fourth, Fasogbon made a steal and was fouled by a Rebel, but the Tiger picked up his fifth foul via a technical, but still managed to hit both foul shots before having to leave.

Turpin finished with eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Tiger Dylan Toler grabbed five boards and Murray tied McKinney for game-high steals honors with four. DePinho pulled down nine boards for the Rebels, who also got eight rebounds from Haught.

“He’ll be back to school Tuesday,” coach Rick Haught said of Bowie as his squad shot 44.9% (22 of 49). “I still think he’s the kind of quiet leader and the guy who kind of keeps guys under control and I thought at times we were too sped up, but the magnitude of the game. I told him (Wirt coach Chase Mills) after the game I thought he did a good job because he was down two kids. I thought he did a great job with his kids and gave us trouble.

“We had some kids, Aiden Murphy, he steps in and (makes) three 3s and he comes off the bench for us and that was huge for us. That helped us get that 15-point lead at halftime. I’m proud of our kids because when the year started we were not a very good man defense and there’s been games where our man has carried us and so I’m proud of the effort and work they’ve put in to get to this point.”

Despite being so close to the state tournament, coach Mills was proud of his squad.

“Give Ritchie County and coach Haught credit,” stated the Tiger boss. “They had guys step up and make shots. I thought the triangle-and-two early on McKinney and Haught was effective. We tried to take them away.

“However, Flesher and Murphy made shots that made us pay. We made a run in the third quarter, but had too many turnovers and didn’t shoot it well. Not a good recipe for success. We have a good young group of kids to build on and hope to be back in a regional co-final next season.”

Contact Jay Bennett at jbennett@newsandsentinel.com

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