By Cam Huffman
In 1986, a gallon of gas was 89 cents. Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States, Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history and the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated after launch.
Movie goers were flocking to see Top Gun, while television watchers were on the couch taking in The A-Team.
That year, when the country watched for news of the Iran-Contra Affair, was also the last time the Greenbrier East basketball team began a season 8-0 — until now.
Rondale Watson, Bryce Woodliff and the current group of Spartans, who weren’t even born when Bimbo Coles was leading that ’86 East squad to victories, defeated Metrolina Christian (N.C.) 72-57 Saturday in the finals of the Spartan Basketball Holiday Invitational to capture the tournament title and pick up their eighth straight victory to begin the season.
“It’s been a long time, that’s for sure,” said Spartan head coach Jim Justice, whose team defeated Capital 73-62 Friday night to get to the championship game. “But that’s kind of a secondary goal. How you finish is the big thing. But you have to start before you can finish.”
And Justice, who built the Greenbrier East girls’ program into a champion, likes the start.
“(Friday) night we were down (10) and came back, and this place (Spartan Gymnasium) was wild,” he said. “It was really, really good.”
Metrolina (10-6), which beat Morgantown’s Trinity Christian 77-69 in overtime Friday to advance to the title game, actually led the Spartans 19-13 after the opening quarter and trailed just 33-28 at the halftime break.
But with East leading 36-33 in a back-and-forth contest, the tournament hosts grabbed full control.
Bookended by a pair of Woodliff pull-up 3-pointers, both with a defender in his face, and an acrobatic coast-to-coast score from Watson that ended with a bucket and a foul, the Spartans used a 17-2 run to extend their lead to 53-35.
“We were spread out a whole lot and pressing all the time,” said Justice of the early struggles. “That was (Metrolina’s) strong suit. I felt like we could press their guards and take the ball from them. We weren’t real successful with that, and it gave their big people a chance to slash and drive and do the things they do well.
“We kept changing defenses and changing defenses, and finally we just went with a simple 2-3 (zone),” he continued, explaining the East run. “That’s something you hate to do, because it slows the game down. But at halftime I told them we would have to grind it out. We had to just clog up the middle. When we did that, they didn’t have the shooters, and that was it. We solved the riddle.”
As frustrations mounted for Metrolina, resulting in a technical foul on Tyrell Nelson, East extended that run to 24-5 over the final six minutes of the third quarter.
Behind 60-38 at that point, Metrolina’s chance of hoisting the tournament trophy was long gone.
“We tried to pressure them a little, but we couldn’t turn them over,” said Metrolina head coach Michael Wilson. “They have good guards that handle the ball well and penetrate well. They’re a good team, that’s for sure.”
A night after scoring a season-high 38 against the Cougars, Watson — who picked up right where he left off, scoring the Spartans’ first five points — finished with 31, attacking the rim for easy points and pulling up for outside jumpers when the defense began to sag. The 6-foot-3 junior also grabbed seven rebounds and dished out a pair of assists.
“He’s playing great,” said Justice of last year’s Class AA all-state pick at Oak Hill. “I keep telling him if he can use his athleticism within our system, it just makes us that much better. When he did that, he got some good looks. He’s just a heck of a player.”
Woodliff, East’s senior point guard, finished with 20 points, including a 4-of-8 mark from 3-point range. He also led the team with five assists.
In the middle, the Spartans’ 6-foot-9 center, Obi Romeo, scored just seven points, but he pulled down 19 rebounds and blocked five shots.
Where the game was really won, though, was on the defensive end.
Josh Dominguez did his part for Metrolina, following up a 31-point effort on Friday with 27 more in the championship game, most of them at the free throw line. East, however, did a good job of slowing down Nelson, a 6-7 power forward who was coming off a 25-point effort.
The senior, who came into the tournament averaging a little more than 21 points per game, was held to just 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting from the field.
“He’s our best player, and they kind of crowded him in the post and took away what we wanted to do,” said Wilson. “We made some adjustments, but he’s such a big part.”
East also forced 17 Metrolina turnovers, leading to easy buckets on the other end and getting a large tournament crowd on its feet. The Spartans nearly shot 50 percent from the field, thanks largely to their success in transition.
“I think we came up here not knowing what to expect,” said Wilson. “They got us on our heels a little bit. It was tough for us, but a great experience. Hopefully we learn from it and get better when we go back to North Carolina.”
Justice’s club will face its biggest test of the year on Wednesday when his team heads to Beckley to face another undefeated, longtime rival Woodrow Wilson.
“It will be a mad house, that’s for sure,” said the Spartan coach of the annual rivalry, which will be amped up to a new level because of the teams’ hot starts. “I just hope we can play well and compete.”
Wesley Funderburk 1 0-0 3, Josh Dominguez 7 13-14 27, Aaron Stokey 1 0-0 2, Alec Bross 5 0-0 14, Tyrell Nelson 5 1-1 11, Hilton Smith 0 0-0 0, Max Cleophat 0 0-0 0, Kyle Kiser 0 0-0 0, Will Wooten 0 0-0 0, Jake Wooten 0 0-0 0. Totals 19 15-19 57.
Greenbrier East (8-0)
Dereck Weiford 1 0-0 3, Obi Romeo 3 1-2 7, Rondale Watson 14 2-6 31, Bryce Woodliff 7 2-4 20, Evan Ramsey 3 0-0 8, Owen Browning 0 0-0 0, Deante Erskine 0 0-0 0, Tyler Canterbury 1 0-1 3, Josh Zebosky 0 0-1 0, Ryan Lindsey 0 0-0 0, Maurkese Tripplett 0 0-0 0. Totals 29 5-14 72.
M 19 9 10 19 — 57
GE 13 20 27 12 — 72
3-point goals — M: 4 (Bross 4); GE: 9 (Woodliff 4, Ramsey 2, Weiford, Watson, Canterbury). Fouled out — M: (Stokey, Nelson).