When Greenbrier East hoisted the 2012 Class AAA state championship trophy into the air last March at the Charleston Civc Center, the result was fully expected.
But the trophy the Lady Spartans were holding Saturday at the Beckley Raleigh-County Convention Center was anything but a given.
After losing a pair of all-state players in the offseason, unlikely Class AAA No. 1 Greenbrier East improved to 14-0 Saturday with a 54-46 win over No. 6 University (13-5) in the championship game of the Big Atlantic Classic.
“It’s just unbelievable,” said head coach Jim Justice. “That’s all there is to it.
“It’s comes down to a lot of things. They know a lot of stuff. They can do a lot of things, and they listen. Every time they take the floor, you know they’re going to go at it with all their heart.”
Down 27-26 at halftime, the game really turned for the Lady Spartans in the third quarter. After Maddee Carroll set the tone with a steal and a layup on the other end for the first points of the half, Bianca André connected on one of her three 3-pointers to put her team up by four. Liz Romeo then sank a pair of free throws, and Chaunté McDowell connected on a 3-pointer from the corner to put East ahead 36-27 before the Hawks even knew what had hit them.
University didn’t score its first points of the third quarter until the 2:16 mark, and the Hawks ended the frame with just four points and one field goal.
“At halftime, I said, ‘Guys, where are they scoring all their points? They’re scoring because we’re not getting back (on defense),’” said Justice. “I told them they had to stop that. We don’t go into halftime with some rah-rah speech. We try to make adjustments to fix what we’re doing, and that’s what we did.”
That 16-4 spurt out of the locker room put East ahead 42-31 at the end of three quarters, and it extended its lead as large as 12, 47-35, in the final quarter when McDowell knocked down a 3-pointer and was fouled in the process.
From there, all the Lady Spartans had to do was hang onto the lead.
East slowed the tempo and worked the clock, but the Hawks had one last surge left in them.
With East ahead 50-41 with just 1:36 on the clock, University went on a quick 4-0 run to make the game 50-45 with a minute to play.
The Hawks, in fact, had the ball down just five, but they couldn’t convert on some decent looks, and East celebrated the championship victory.
“We built a lead and were able to pull the ball,” said Justice. “But then we missed some foul shots, and I looked at them and said, ‘You kids are just trying to torment me. That’s all there is to it.’ It’s stressful, I can promise you that.”
André, a first-team all-stater from last year’s championship team, finished with a game-best 23 points and 13 rebounds. She dished out a pair of assists and blocked nine shots.
McDowell finished with 19 points and four rebounds, while Carroll scored six points.
“We got a really good performance out of Bianca yesterday afternoon (in a 63-49 win over No. 7 Preston) and tonight, and we got a solid performance out of Chaunté,” Justice said. “Maddee battled her butt off in there.”
Liz Romeo battled foul trouble most of the game but finished with five points and two rebounds. Playing valuable minutes in her place was Lexi Tincher, who didn’t score but did secure three rebounds and played solid defense in the starter’s absence.
University’s cause was hampered by some foul trouble of its own, especially from its point guard, Mariah Callen, who picked up a personal foul and a technical foul in the first three minutes of the game and never really found her rhythm coming in and out of the game the rest of the way. She finished with six points, seven assists and five rebounds. Her technical, though, helped East open up with a 7-2 lead and build some early momentum.
Kayla Boggs led the Hawks with 18 points and 12 rebounds, and Hayley Harrison scored 12 points and grabbed five boards.
East shot just 30 percent from the field, was outrebounded 41-33 and had the ball stolen 11 times. But it still found a way to win the statistic that matters most — the final score.
“We just find a way,” said Justice. “We lined up at the beginning of the season, and a lot of them are former state champions. They just decided they weren’t going to be awful and let everybody run over top of them.
“It’s a lot of will. These kids have worked really hard, and they deserve to be No. 1 on their effort. For us to be No. 1 in the state is just unbelievable.”
The Lady Spartans — who actually went 3-0 in the Big Atlantic Classic, beating St. Albans in the opening round and then filling in to take on Preston when Nicholas County couldn’t make the trip because of bad weather — will be back in action Monday when they host Charleston Catholic and then will take on No. 9 George Washington on Thursday.
University, which knocked off Class AA No. 1 Westside on Thursday to earn a spot in the title game, will host John Marshall on Tuesday.
Mariah Callen 3 0-0 6, Megan Messiora 1 1-2 3, Hayley Harrison 3 3-4 12, Kayla Boggs 9 0-2 18, Shelby Boyle 2 0-1 4, Cassdy Seaman 0 0-0 0, Lexi Kolar 0 2-2 2, Cortney Mercer 0 0-0 0, McKenley Meadows 0 1-2 1. Totals 18 7-13 46.
Greenbrier East (14-0)
Liz Romeo 1 2-2 5, Bianca André 5 10-12 23, Maddee Carroll 1 2-5 4, Chloe Honaker 1 0-2 3, Chaunté McDowell 5 5-9 19, Victoria Krystynak 0 0-0 0, Lexi Tincher 0 0-0 0, Kaitlyn Mize 0 0-0 0. Totals 13 19-30 54.
U 14 13 4 15 — 46
GE 17 9 16 12 — 54
3-point goals — U: 3 (Harrison 3); GE: 9 (McDowell 4, André 3, Romeo, Honaker). Fouled out — U: (Callen, Harrison, Boggs); GE: Romeo.