By Brian Woodson
For The Register-Herald
The Beavers are back, and this time they want to finish the job.
Bluefield placed four players in double figures and kept Robert C. Byrd scoreless for more than eight minutes in the second half, as the Beavers advanced to the Class AA state championship game with a hard-fought 54-48 semifinal win over the Eagles Friday night at the Charleston Civic Center.
Bluefield (24-3) will play Fairmont Senior (21-6) in the state title game today at 2:30 p.m. The Beavers reached the same point last season, but dropped a 58-52 decision to Tug Valley.
These Beavers have remembered that loss for an entire year. “It has definitely motivated us,” Bluefield junior Anthony Eades said. “Ever since we lost that state championship last year we have worked hard every day for it so hopefully all the hard work pays off.”
Bluefield was led by Eades with 15 points, followed by 13 points from D.J. Edwards and 10 apiece by Lykel Collier and Michael Yost.
Robert C. Byrd had ended Bluefield’s football season with a win in the state quarterfinals. The Beavers returned the favor on the court, sending the Eagles home, and pushing the top-seeded Beavers to the title game for the seventh time and second season in a row.
“I thought it was a great high school basketball game,” said Bluefield head coach Buster Large, whose Beavers defeated the Eagles 72-56 in the finals of the Big Atlantic Classic in December. “I just feel like it could have went either way and we were very, very fortunate to get a little breathing room late in the game.
“I thought Robert C. Byrd played an outstanding game, I also thought their kids just battled tremendously all night long.”
Bluefield jumped out to an early 9-2 lead, but the fourth-seeded Eagles proved they belonged with a 16-4 run, including a 3 that Devonti Birch banked in at the buzzer for the 19-18 lead after the first period.
Birch had 13 of his 18 points in the opening quarter, and senior Nick Dyer had 12 of his 14 in the first half, as the Eagles shot 50 percent (13-26) from the field, and led 32-31 at the break.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my guys, I thought they played extremely hard against a very good basketball team,” said Robert C. Byrd head coach Bill Bennett, whose Eagles had lost seven times in the quarterfinals before finally reaching the semifinal round. “We are obviously disappointed.
“I told our guys this afternoon that we were the only people in Kanawha County that thought we had a chance tonight, and hopefully people will take a different view of our team.” Bluefield, which struggled from the field in its quarterfinal win over North Marion, came out strong, making its first six shots to build a 14-7 lead. They were just 6 for 17 the rest of the half, with baskets by Edwards and Eades pulling the Beavers within one at the break. “We emphasized at halftime that if we didn’t win that third quarter we would be going home in the morning,” Large said. “We knew if we could just get a little bit of breathing room we felt like we were going to sit on the ball a little bit and run some clock.
“We have some pretty good free throw shooters, but you wouldn’t believe it or not the last two games. We were fortunate to knock enough down to get this win.” The lead changed hands seven times in the game and six of those came in the third quarter, with Collier _ who took just one shot in the opening half _ scoring 10 second half points, including four in the third, both of drives to the hoop. Collier also dished out seven assists and swiped five steals. Edwards led Bluefield with nine rebounds, along with three assists, two steals and two blocked shots.
“The coaches told me to be more aggressive and I just didn’t want to let my team down,” Collier said. “I didn’t want to lose in the semifinals. We are trying to win a state championship this year and I just didn’t want to let them down or the community.”
After a second Collier basket, 6-foot-4 sophomore Justin Noble put the Eagles up for the final time at 39-38. Birch followed with a basket for a 41-38 advantage, but Robert C. Byrd wouldn’t score again until Birch hit a 3 with 1:22 left in the game.
“We did a lot of good things, but we made some critical mistakes at the wrong time,” Bennett said. “We didn’t make shots in the second half like we did in the first, some of that is attributed to their defense and some of it is attributed to us.”
Bluefield was able to force 16 turnovers in the game, including 10 in the second half, and six in the third period.
“We had to play much better defense, they were really taking it inside and the middle and we wasn’t doing a very good job,” Large said. “We extended our defense out a little bit and it was effective. It is two halves of basketball and we were able to make some adjustments.”
Two free throws by Edwards and a putback at the buzzer by Corey Coppola pulled the Beavers ahead to stay at 42-41 going into the final period.
“We had to step up on defense and knock down some free throws,” Collier said. “Basically we had to play better defense and stop them from scoring.” Bluefield was able to extend a 12-0 run, with a key sequence being when the Eagles swiped the ball from Eades, but missed two layup attempts. Yost was able to get the ball and find Eades for the layup on the other end for the 48-41 lead.
That was followed by offensive goaltending call on the Eagles, and Eades followed with another basket for the 50-41 advantage with 1:57 left to play.
“We were on a little bit of a run there, we were up maybe four or five and that was a huge play right there,” Large said. “We were very fortunate to get that call, but I just know how Robert C. Byrd plays…”
That almost wasn’t enough. Birch put the Eagles on the board with a 3, and while Bluefield continued to struggle from the free throw line, making just 1 for 4 in a stretch of 1:10, the Eagles responded with four free throws of their own to cut the lead to 51-48 with 21:2 seconds left.
“We had an eight-point lead with a minute to go and the next thing you know 15 or 18 seconds later it is down to four,” Large said. “We able to hold on and we’re just happy to be able to advance tomorrow.” Collier was then able to make 3 of 4 free throws over the final 21.2 seconds to lock up a return to the championship game for the Beavers, which has been the goal for an entire season since the disappointment of falling short last year.
“We were very fortunate to get the win,” Large said. “I am so happy for these guys to get back to the state championship game tomorrow.”
— E-mail: bwoodson