By Cam Huffman
In the final seconds of Wednesday night’s rivalry game between Greenbrier East and Woodrow Wilson at the Beckley Raleigh County Convention Center, the students from Greenbrier East chanted “This is our house,” across the way to the Beckley faithful.
The cheer wasn’t received well, and it wasn’t exactly accurate. Prior to Wednesday’s battle of undefeateds, the Spartans hadn’t beaten Woodrow Wilson in Beckley since a sectional game in 1985, and hadn’t won a regular season contest inside what was then known as the Raleigh County Armory since 1976.
But that all changed in front of a packed house that watched Rondale Watson, Bryce Woodliff and Greenbrier East (9-0) erase a 10-point second-half deficit to win 61-59 over the previously undefeated Flying Eagles (3-1).
“It was a big win,” said Greenbrier East second-year head coach Jim Justice as his players exchanged hugs and high-fives at midcourt. “Woodrow’s got a great team, and they played just like we thought they’d play.
“It was a great atmosphere with two great teams playing their hearts out. That’s what this thing’s really all about. It’s been forever and forever and forever since Greenbrier East was able to beat Woodrow here.”
Knotted at 54-all with 2:30 left to play in a back-and-forth game, East’s senior point guard, Bryce Woodliff, who finished the game with 16 points and a team-high eight assists, hit a runner in the lane to put his team up 56-54. The Spartans never trailed again.
“I’ve never played in a rivalry this tough, but I liked it,” said Woodliff. “Coach told us if we listened to him, we would win. And that’s what happened.”
Andrew Johnson, who paced the Flying Eagles with 16 points, pulled his team within a single point with 52 ticks remaining, knocking down his own contested runner. But trailing 60-56 after a couple of East free throws, the senior’s pull-up 3-pointer from the top of the key rimmed out, ending the home team’s last hope.
Chase Hancock’s 3-pointer just before the buzzer — his 16th point of the game, to go along with a team-high 14 rebounds — came too late, and the Spartans stormed the floor after ending a streak of futility.
“They beat us,” said Woodrow Wilson head coach Ron Kidd, refusing to comment further. “I don’t have anything else to say.”
East, which made history by starting 7-0 for the first time since 1986, proved early in the game it was ready to play this with the 16-time state champions this year, opening up a 17-13 lead after the opening quarter. Woodrow found plenty of success in transition, pushing the tempo after Spartan misses, but it struggled against East’s 3-2 zone in the halfcourt set.
The second quarter was a different story.
After trading baskets in the first 30 seconds, putting East up 19-15, the Flying Eagles began to turn up the pressure, forcing turnovers with physical defense and converting the miscues at the other end. East’s offense went completely missing in action, and a 15-2 Woodrow run gave the home team a 28-19 lead. It took a 31-23 advantage into the break, outscoring the Spartans 18-6 in that frame.
The lead swelled to as large as 33-23 early in the third quarter, with Woodrow finding an early second-chance basket, but East turned to the press to try to beat the Flying Eagles at their own game.
Two minutes later, the Spartans were within four when Dereck Weiford, who was 0-for-4 from the field in the opening half, knocked down his first 3-pointer in four attempts.
“We’re not going to back off,” said Justice. “There isn’t any quit in this team. I tell them over and over that I’m not losing a close game, and I tell them that to build their confidence. They just kept digging.”
The lead stayed around four and six until the 2-minute mark of the third when Watson, whom Justice labeled as a state player of the year candidate, began to take control.
A backdoor cut led to a bucket and a foul to pull East within four, and he converted a Woodliff steal into points seconds later to put his club within a single bucket.
East took its first lead of the second half with 1:50 to play in the third, when Woodliff knocked down a 3-ball in transition, and Weiford kept the hot hand with another 3-pointer from the corner to put his team up 44-40. The senior forward finished with nine points and five rebounds.
“I held his hands and said, ‘Dereck, these are magic fingers. You’re going to make all the rest of your shots,’” said Justice. “He said, ‘OK, coach.’ He’s a good kid, and he plays his heart out.”
The final quarter was all Watson. With West Virginia University assistant coach Larry Harrison watching from the sidelines, the junior swingman scored a game-high 26 points to go along with nine rebounds and a pair of assists. He blocked three shots and had two of East’s seven steals.
“I just gave everything I had for my teammates,” he said. “My teammates give me the ball when I want it, and I get it to them when they want it.”
Obi Romeo used his 6-foot-9 frame to pull down 15 rebounds, while scoring six points and blocking five shots.
Woodrow finished with four players in double figures, with Nicholas Deems (10 points, 12 rebounds) and Donté Nabors (13 points) joining Johnson and Hancock.
Next up for East on its quest to rewrite the Spartan record books is a home game Tuesday against Logan.
The 1986 Spartan team, led by future Olympian and NBA player Bimbo Coles, won its first 11 games that season. East is hoping for an even better start this time around.
“This was a big boost,” said Watson. “We’ll get a couple days off and just try to keep it going.”
Woodrow Wilson will play again Friday at Spring Valley.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.
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Greenbrier East (9-0)
Dereck Weiford 3 0-0 9, Obi Romeo 2 2-6 6, Rondale Watson 10 4-9 26, Bryce Woodliff 4 5-6 16, Evan Ramsey 0 1-3 1, Owen Browning 1 0-0 3, Deante Erskine 0 0-0 0, Ryan Lindsey 0 0-0 0. Totals 20 12-24 61.
Woodrow Wilson (3-1) Andrew Johnson 4 7-10 16, Nicholas Deems 4 0-0 10, Donté Nabors 4 5-5 13, Chase Hancock 7 1-3 16, Nequan Carrington 1 0-0 2, Jordan Rutledge 0 0-0 0, Noah Hancock 1 0-0 2, Brent Osborne 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 13-18 59.
GE 17 6 21 17 — 61
WW 13 18 13 15 — 59
3-point goals — GE: 9 (Weiford 3, Woodliff 3, Watson 2, Browning); WW: 4 (Deems 2, Johnson, Hancock). Fouled out — GE: None; WW: Johnson, Deems.