By Cam Huffman
Down nine points late in the third quarter and staring its second straight loss squarely in the face during Saturday’s consolation game at the Big Atlantic Classic, Class AAA No. 4 Greenbrier East decided it had had enough.
Sparked by the play of point guard Bryce Woodliff, who finished with a game-high 25 points, the Spartans cut the Musselman lead to four at the end of the third quarter and then outscored the Applemen 21-6 over the final eight minutes to claim a 70-59 victory and avoid disaster.
Prior to the late run, the Spartans (16-1), who shot just 25.9 percent from the field in the first half, were settling for outside shots, and it wasn’t working. East finished the game just 11 for 32 from behind the stripe — most of that from the hot hand of Woodliff — and Musselman (11-5) was taking advantage, getting runouts off of the rebounds and attacking the basket.
All of that helped the Applemen build a 51-42 advantage, and Greenbrier East head coach Jim Justice was left with his head in his hands on the Spartan sideline.
“I told the kids at halftime, ‘Last night was a shot in the stomach. This could be the knockout punch,’” said Justice, who also coached his girls team in a championship game later in the evening. “We couldn’t lose that game.”
His team got the message.
Woodliff started hitting from downtown, and leading scorer Rondale Watson, a junior who was the center of attention from the Musselman defense all game, attacked the basket and found a way to get to the line.
Back-to-back 3-balls from Woodliff — who finished with seven strikes from downtown — opened the fourth quarter and tied the game, and then often-overlooked guard Evan Ramsey followed Woodliff’s example with his own pair of 3s. The second, from deep in the corner, gave the Spartans a 61-57 advantage and broke the will of the Applemen.
“Evan is kind of an unsung hero in a lot of ways,” said Justice. “He can step up and hit that big shot when you really need it. He plays his heart out and is a great kid.”
Musselman never got closer the rest of the way as East extended its lead to double digits for the first time all afternoon before claiming the 11-point win.
“Down nine in the third quarter with everything going against us, it would have been easy to tank it,” said Justice. “But our kids dug deep and found a way to win.”
Early on, it didn’t look like a game that would even be close.
Hungry after tasting defeat for the first time all season Friday in a shocking loss to Point Pleasant, the Spartans jumped on the Applemen with a diamond press and quickly opened up a 10-1 advantage.
Musselman had no answer for the Spartan defense, which was playing at a new level of intensity, and it didn’t find a single field goal until Tommy Hargroves made a turnaround jumper from the foul line with 2:20 left in the opening quarter.
East, though, failed to extend the lead as far as it could have, because of its inability to make shots from anywhere on the court.
“We just couldn’t throw it in the ocean,” said Justice. “We were getting what we wanted, but we couldn’t extend the lead.”
Musselman was able to hang around, and it quickly trimmed a 10-2 deficit down to 13-9 before Woodliff stroked a 3-pointer just prior to the end of the opening quarter to put his team up 16-9.
Dereck Weiford opened up the second quarter with a 3-pointer to extend the lead back to 10, but he didn’t make another one the rest of the game, finishing 1 for 9 from behind the arc.
Musselman took advantage of the Spartan shooting woes by attacking the lane with Trevon Wesco and Hargroves, and when RJ Stephens knocked down one of his four 3-pointers with 3:13 left before the half, the Applemen took their first lead, 25-24.
East went into the half up only one, 30-29.
“I thought we executed well,” said Musselman head coach Derek Basile. “I thought we had them frustrated. We did a nice job on (Watson), and he wasn’t sure what to do.”
With the Spartans’ starting center, Obi Romeo, on the bench in foul trouble, Musselman continued to attack the rim out of the locker room. Wesco and Hargroves — a pair of 6-foot-4 junior forwards who finished with 13 points each — racked up points, as well as assists, kicking it out to Stephens, who finished with a team-best 14.
But East refused to let its tournament end with another disappointment.
Watson, who finished with 23 points and four rebounds, despite taking just seven shots all game, put pressure on the defense and got to the foul line, where he knocked down 13 of 15 attempts. As a team, East finished 23 of 29 from the line, where Musselman attempted only 12 shots all game.
“We went to the basket a lot, and we didn’t get fouls called,” said Basile. “They got to the line on the other end and made a lot of them. That’s a big difference.”
East also found 14 valuable minutes off the bench from Deante Erskine, who played a solid game with three points, a pair of assists and a rebound, giving his team some extra speed and defense on an afternoon where Weiford’s shots just wouldn’t fall.
The Spartans will be back in action Friday when Bluefield, which won the Class AA championship at the Big Atlantic Classic Saturday, visits Spartan Gym in Fairlea.
Musselman will host Jefferson on Tuesday.
RJ Stephens 5 0-0 14, Noah Brooks 1 0-0 2, Trevon Wesco 6 0-0 13, Tommy Hargrove 4 5-6 13, Jacob Bare 2 2-6 6, CJ Venable 0 0-0 0, Lee Daniel 4 0-0 9, Riker McDonald 1 0-0 2. Totals 23 7-12 59.
Greenbrier East (16-1)
Dereck Weiford 1 2-3 5, Obi Romeo 1 1-2 3, Rondale Watson 7 13-15 23, Bryce Woodliff 7 4-4 25, Evan Ramsey 3 0-0 9, Owen Browning 0 0-0 0, Deante Erskine 0 3-5 3, Tyler Canterbury 0 0-0 0, Ryan Lindsey 1 0-0 2, Maurkese Tripplett 0 0-0 0. Totals 18 23-29 70.
M 9 20 24 6 — 59
GE 16 14 19 21 — 70
3-pointers — M: 6 (Stephens 4, Wesco, Daniel); GE: 11 (Woodliff 7, Ramsey 3, Weiford). Fouled out — none.