By Cam Huffman
The Associated Press
Greenbrier East head coach Jim Justice looked at his team — the defending Class AAA girls basketball state champions — on the first day of practice this winter and wondered how it was going to win a game after losing two of its stop three scorers — its starting point guard and its only really inside presence — from the title run.
He eventually came to believe that the 2012-13 Spartans could win more than they lost.
He never even dreamed they’d win all of them.
The No. 1 Spartans (22-0) finished off a perfect regular season Saturday at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building with a 71-50 win over Class A No. 8 Fayetteville (15-6), proving something to their doubters — and even their coach.
“Not in a million ways did I think there was any possibility (of a perfect season),” Justice admitted. “But they’ve done it. They’ve worked hard every day. They get the loose balls, they work hard on their defense and they know a lot of stuff.”
It was never easy for the Spartans — who lacked the size and pure athletic ability of last year’s squad — and Saturday’s afternoon matinee was no different.
Greenbrier East — which played five games in six days this week — came out flat, scoring just two points in the opening 2:30 of the game.
Unhappy with the effort, Justice brought in five reserves off the bench and sat the starters. Fayetteville’s lead swelled to 10-5 with 2:13 left in the opening frame before Justice had finally seen enough and decided to put the starters back on the floor.
East’s top players responded with a relentless full-court defense, which led to turnovers and easy looks on the other end.
By the end of the first 8 minutes, the Spartans were within a single point, 10-9, and they took the lead for the first time on a Chloe Honaker 3-pointer from the top of the key a minute into the second quarter.
They never trailed again.
A 13-0 run led by penetration from Honaker, Chaunté McDowell and Bianca André and perimeter shooting from Liz Romeo put East ahead 18-10 with 5:15 to play in the first half, and the Spartans pushed it to 41-17 as the Pirates had no answer for the East traps.
“We’ve played a lot of games this week,” said Justice, explaining the opening sequence of events. “So we probably were tired and a little flat. But it’s my job to take care of that.
“I took (the starters) out, and after a little while I had Chaunté walk down and ask every one of them if they were ready to play. They said they were, and I told them they had to score 25 in the second quarter. They scored 32.”
With East ahead 41-19 at halftime, the final result was never in doubt.
The final 16 minutes served as a coronation for the undefeated season.
Romeo led the Spartans with 17 points, while McDowell and Honaker scored 16 each. East hit seven 3-pointers and found 12 points off its bench.
Fayetteville, which has had a memorable season of its own, got 30 points and 17 rebounds from Jessica Brown and six points from Avina Sedlock. The Pirates made a little run early in the third quarter, but the Spartans responded, just as they have all season, refusing to leave without a win.
With the game in hand, East was able to play its reserves the entire fourth quarter, getting some valuable court time for the bench as the Pirates continued to fight.
“We’ll never see anybody that good in our region, so it’s definitely got to make us better,” said Fayetteville head coach John Kincaid. “When you play a really good team that’s a class act, it has to help.
“We competed. They overmatched us with their pressure, but we didn’t back down. That’s what you want to see. Our effort was tremendous.”
Fayetteville’s 16-0 fourth quarter run, which made the final score much more respectable, meant very little in the big picture or to the Spartans’ feeling of accomplishment as they walked off the court.
“I don’t think they’ll get it for a long time,” said a smiling Justice. “I told them maybe someday when they have my kind of white hair, they’ll realize what they’ve done.
“Coach (Marion) Gordon has been at Greenbrier East a long, long time, and he thinks this may be the only undefeated season in (basketball).”
East’s perfect run included a number of close calls along the way.
The Spartans were in a fight at Logan before winning 56-52. They played a back-and-forth game with Class AAA No. 4 University in the Big Atlantic Classic championship game — a night after knocking off a ranked team in Preston in a game it didn’t have to play — before holding on for a 54-46 win, and they needed a last-second shot at home to knock off No. 8 George Washington 57-56.
In the rematch with Logan in Fairlea, the Spartans won just 66-62, and they were nearly upset Friday night when they trailed No. 11 Hedgesville after three quarters before coming back to win 71-61.
“We played some great teams,” said Justice, who also coaches the boys team at Greenbrier East, which is 17-2 heading into the final week of the regular season. “I’ve coached a lot of teams and had a lot of success, but this was the most unlikely, without any doubt. It’s a real salute to just how hard these kids worked.”
Greenbrier East will enter next week’s Region 3, Section 2 tournament as the No. 1 seed.
Fayetteville will be the top seed in Region 3, Section 1 and will play Midland Trail Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building.
“(Friday) night against Independence, we played the best game we’ve played all season,” said Kincaid. “If we play in the region like we did (against Greenbrier East), we’re going to be OK. We’re where we need to be.”
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Greenbrier East (22-0)
Chloe Honaker 7 0-0 16, Elizabeth Romeo 8 0-0 17, Taylor Hill 2 1-2 6, Chaunté McDowell 5 6-6 16, Lexi Tincher 0 1-2 1, Bianca André 3 0-0 7, Maddee Carroll 0 1-2 1, Kaitland Mize 1 3-4 5. Totals: 26 11-16 71.
Jessica Brown 13 4-5 30, Erica Hogan 2 0-0 4, Katherine Peelish 1 0-0 3, Avina Sedlock 3 0-0 6, Maddie Pritt 2 1-2 5, Alyssa Sedlock 1 0-1 2. Totals: 22 5-8 0.
GE 9 32 21 9 — 71
F 10 9 13 18 — 50
3-point goals — GE: 7 (Honaker 2, Romeo 3, André, Hill); F: 1 (Peelish). Fouled out — none.