By Cam Huffman
Don’t count Greenbrier East out just yet.
After a shocking loss to Point Pleasant last Friday, many were ready to write the Spartans off as pretenders, even after their 15-0 start to the season. But in front of a madhouse a week later at Spartan Gymnasium, Class AAA No. 5 Greenbrier East sent a message that it still belongs among the state's top teams with a 65-49 win over Class AA No. 1 Bluefield.
“We had four great days of practice,” said Spartan head coach Jim Justice. “We played two mediocre games at Logan (against Tug Valley and Logan), two really mediocre games in the Big Atlantic Classic (the loss to Point Pleasant and a win over Musselman), and any good team continues to improve. We stalled, but we’re past that now.
“Both teams competed their hardest, and it was what you think about when you think of the Hoosiers movie or something,” continued the coach of the standing-room-only crowd that came to watch a pair of 1-loss teams do battle. “It was just perfect for high school basketball.”
Bluefield (15-2), which came into Friday's clash on a 13-game winning streak since their only loss to Class AAA Princeton on Dec. 28, had plenty of confidence and most of the tools to match up with the Spartans — except for a 6-foot-9 center in the paint.
Greenbrier East (17-1) took advantage of a huge size advantage, outrebounding Bluefield 57-26 and getting a week’s worth of second-chance shots. Obi Romeo, the Spartans junior center, nearly outrebounded the Beavers on his own. He had a double-double at halftime with 10 points and 13 boards, and, despite battling foul trouble in the second half, finished with 14 points, 22 rebounds and five blocked shots.
“They have tremendous height,” said Bluefield head coach Buster Large. “They seemed to get every rebound. But we’re still trying to get better, and we're going to be fine. We lost to a very good basketball team.”
Romeo had plenty of help. Junior guard Rondale Watson took advantage of a Beaver defense that collapsed in the paint to try to slow down East's powerful center, knocking down a pair of third-quarter 3-pointers and then capping off a 13-0 Spartan run out of the locker room with a thunderous breakaway dunk that brought a packed house to its feet and gave East its biggest lead of the evening, 38-20.
“I told them at halftime, ‘Obi's got 10 points and 13 rebounds, what do you think their defense is going to do? They're going to swarm to Obi,'" said Justice. "I told Rondale he had to shoot the 3, and boom, boom he hit two 3s, and the game was out or reach."
Watson's rim-shaking dunk also had another unintended consequence, drawing a technical foul when the official ruled that East's biggest star unnecessarily hung on the rim in celebration.
Watson — who finished with a game-best 26 points and 11 rebounds, attacking the rim on almost every position — had to go to the bench with his third foul.
Seconds later, Romeo was also whistled for his third, and with a little less than five minutes to go in the third quarter the Spartans had their three top scorers — point guard Bryce Woodliff, who finished with 14 points and six assists but also battled foul trouble, the other — sitting on the bench.
Bluefield took full advantage of seeing the Spartan reserves on the floor, turning up the pressure and forcing turnovers to hold East scoreless for more than 2 minutes.
An 18-point advantage was trimmed to 12, 38-26, before Justice pulled Watson and Woodliff off the bench and put them back into the game.
"It was really tough," admitted Woodliff of helplessly watching the lead evaporate. "But I had confidence in my teammates, and they held it for us."
Still, the Beavers didn't go away quietly, even with the Spartan stars back in the game. On the strength of Corey Coppola inside — the sophomore big man came off the bench to score 18 points and grab 13 rebounds — Bluefield continued to chip away and eventually pulled within four, 52-48 with 3:31 left in the game.
What hurt the Beavers all night, though, proved costly again down the stretch.
With a chance to make the Spartans really nervous in the closing minutes, Bluefield just couldn't get its shots to fall.
The visitors were forced to foul after a Watson driving layup put his team up 56-48 with 1:38 to play, and East hit its foul shots down the stretch to close out the victory.
"We've been working all week since that loss to do what we know we can do," said Watson. "Everybody has been working hard in practice, and we wanted to come out and show that. We came through as a team, and everybody did their job."
Bluefield, normally a good shooting team, shot just 26.7 percent from the field, including a 1-for-21 finish from 3-point range.
Anthony Eades, the Beavers' top scorer this season, finished with 15 points, but he was just 4-for-20 from the field and 1-for-8 from long range.
"We just didn't shoot it well tonight," said Large. "That's not like us. But their defense had something to do with it. They're a very good team and have a very good coach."
Greenbrier East will be back in action Tuesday when it hosts sectional rival Princeton in a critical contest when it comes to sectional seeding. The Spartans, Woodrow Wilson and Princeton are considered the top three teams in Region III, Section 2, and with a win at Beckley already under its belt, East could take a huge step toward locking up the top region seed by knocking off the Tigers.
Bluefield will host Class AA No. 9 Scott on Monday.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.
David Edwards 1 3-5 5, Anthony Eades 4 6-8 15, Lykel Collier 2 1-5 5, Michael Yost 2 0-0 4, Corey Coppola 6 6-7 18, Jordan Ponder 1 0-0 2, David Woodrum 0 0-0 0. Totals 16 16-25 49.
Greenbrier East (17-1)
Dereck Weiford 3 0-0 7, Obi Romeo 6 2-2 14, Rondale Watson 11 2-6 26, Bryce Woodliff 4 5-6 14, Evan Ramsey 0 0-2 0, Austin Roop 0 0-0 0, Owen Browning 1 1-2 3, Deante Erskine 0 0-0 0, Tyler Canterbury 0 0-0 0, Ryan Lindsey 0 0-0 0, Maurkese Tripplett 0 1-2 1. Totals 25 11-10 65.
B 10 10 10 19 — 49
GE 10 15 17 23 — 65
3-pointers — B: 1 (Eades); GE: 4 (Watson 2, Weiford, Woodliff) Fouled out — B: Edwards; GE: none.