Editor’s note: “Remember When?” is a series highlighting the area’s most memorable performances, whether it be a game, season or individual player performance.
Coming into the 1992-93 season, Woodrow Wilson was a heavy Class AAA favorite.
The defending champions brought back a core of players that included two eventual Player of the Year award winners, a Marshall signee as well as sophomore phenom Gene Nabors.
But the road to a second straight title wasn’t as smooth as the Flying Eagles players thought it would be and head coach Dave Barksdale knew that.
“We won it in ‘92 and had everybody back and had Gene coming up,” Barksdale said. “I’m telling you the honest truth, (Tony) Caridi and them had the talk shows and people already gave us the trophy after our ‘92 win. So what do you worry about? You worry about the kids being complacent.
“John Flournoy was a really good friend of mine and he was at Midland Trail coaching,” Barksdale said. “He said ‘Coach would you think about coming over and scrimmaging with our kids? I think that would be good for our program.’ I told him, yeah. When we walked in that gym, I watched our kids and it was almost like they thought they were God’s gift to basketball. We played and I got a feeling, that we needed to make sure we didn’t get complacent, that we kept that fire.”
Afterwards Barksdale pulled made a move that’s been told in various different ways.
“After that we got on the bus and I sat in the back and to be honest, it wasn’t that bad, but I thought to myself ‘Barksdale, you’ve got to try and get them to realize they have to play. They’re not going to give us the trophy.’ When I got on that bus I told them we didn’t block anybody out. The bus was riding and I’m mad as anything. We get to that light in Fayetteville past that bridge and I have coach (Butch) Freeman, coach (Bob) Bolen all on the bus. I said ‘I can’t take this anymore, I’m getting off.’ The bus driver told me I couldn’t do that and I said ‘I’ve got assistants here. I can’t stand being here around this.’
“Bob gets back to Beckley and calls my wife and she tell him I’m a grown man, I can take care of myself. I got to about the outskirts of Oak Hill and Click had come back to pick me up. A lot of people thought I had lost it, but I just needed them to see that you have to go out there and play ball. You can’t just think you’re all that. The only games we lost were to the four-time defending Class AAAA Georgia state champions and to South Charleston at their place.”
Though those concerns didn’t bleed into the regular season, they did pop up in the postseason, leading to what many consider the greatest comeback in state tournament history.
For this story, Barksdale visited the Register-Herald in June, watching and recounting the 1993 Class AAA semifinal game against Brooke.
Through the first three quarters, the heavily favored Flying Eagles had dug themselves into what seemed an insurmountable hole, entering the final frame down 59-39. No team had ever come back from a deficit that large, in fact the largest fourth quarter comeback was a 15-point redemption effort from the 1962 Woodrow team in the state title game against Weir. Barksdale was a guard on that team that finished the season undefeated with a 71-69 win over the Red Riders.
Still, that didn’t deter the Flying Eagles as Barksdale made a call that didn’t change the deficit, but inspired his team.
“We took all five starters out and we put five new ones in,” Barksdale said. “They didn’t make up any ground, but they hustled their butts off. They were diving for loose balls. I looked at our kids at the beginning of the fourth quarter and said ‘Are y’all ready to play?’ But then they had seen our other kids hustle and work and they jumped up there and that’s how they played the fourth quarter. They just sat on the bench and watched. I said if we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose with people hustling and trying.”
“I didn’t know if we’d comeback. All I wanted was our kids to play hard. That second bunch really did. Our kids had the eye of the tiger.”
Just three minutes into the fourth quarter, Woodrow cut the deficit from 20 to 13, and eventually down to 11.
Woodrow, which had become a program many cheered against because of its success, having played in the previous three title games and winning two of them, began drawing the support of those in attendance.
“The crowd really got into it,” Barksdale said. “Some of our people told me ‘Well coach, I left. I have to admit I left.’ We kind of came back and the crowd really got into it. You play hard when crowds get into it. Our kids liked the crowds.”
Just as the first unit cheered on the second in the third quarter after they were benched, the second unit returned the favor and the team continued to feed off of it.
“You see our second bunch over there?” Barksdale asks, pointing to the bench celebrating on the screen with the deficit growing smaller. “That’s how we were. Now you can hear our crowd getting into it too.”
“Beckley traveled to the state tournament as well as anybody. By that point we were kind of the villain. Our kids kind of liked that though. We liked that. Towards the end we could feel the neutral fans starting to pull for us. People wanted to see something like that. It was like bedlam in there.”
A bucket from Ryan Culicerto continues to power the Woodrow momentum, forcing Barksdale to recall one of his first encounter with the eventual Player of the Year.
“He’s a senior this year,” Barksdale said Culicerto. “Just to show you what kind of kid he was, when we won it in ‘90, he was at the junior high, coming over the next year. After we won it, he came up to me and said ‘Hey coach, congratulations, just think, now we’re going to win it four years in a row.’ That’s exactly what he said. He was in ninth grade and hadn’t even come over yet and had that mentality. All of them had that killer instinct, but he had that attitude that he wasn’t going to lose.”
As Woodrow continues to cut the deficit on screen, Barksdale reflects on that Brooke team and the effort they gave.
“They played really good,” Barksdale said of Brooke. “They played like they were the favorite and played really well.”
That’s evident as Brooke is up 11 again with three minutes left.
“Golley, they couldn’t have given it to us could they?” Barksdale mutters, watching a ball deflect out of bounds and awarded to Brooke.
With under three minutes left, a decision from Brooke comes that Barksdale remembers clearly as head coach Dave Reitter calls a timeout.
“Now remember, this is their last timeout,” Barksdale says. “When the lead was cut, they couldn’t call a timeout if we scored. It’s no given right now at this point what would happen either way.”
With 2:06 left to play, Shea Fleenor nails a free throw to make it 62-55 in favor of Brooke. Woodrow answers with its patented press and the least heralded player of the bunch, Steve Ball makes the plays to give his team hope.
Ball comes away with back-to-back steals and layups on inbounds plays, making it 62-59 with 1:54 left
“See, they can’t call timeout here to settle down,” Barksdale says.
“I’m sure they were trying to hold it after that. They were playing not to lose rather than to win. They were pretty much just trying to keep from losing. The first half they played to win.”
On the ensuing play Ball comes up with his third steal in as many possessions, pushes the ball up court to Culicerto who crashes in the lane, but is called for an offensive foul, foreshadowing what’s to come.
“They didn’t give us no help there, did they?” Barksdale says of the officiating.
After that charge Barksdale calls a timeout to settle his group down with over a minute left.
“We just have to get a stop,” Barksdale says.
At this point Woodrow has outscored Brooke 20-3 in the quarter.
“Give our second bunch credit for hustling and working,” Barksdale said. “I’m sure that made Brooke tired too. Now these kids that we have on the floor are pretty fresh.”
As quickly as Woodrow grabs the momentum, going for the knockout, Brooke swings back with a haymaker.
Rick Windbigler scores on a layup for Brooke, Fleenor misses a 3-pointer, and Windbigler on the fast break gets to the rim for another layup, making it a 66-59 game with 57 seconds left.
“It’s over isn’t it?” Barksdale says with a smile.
Fortunately for the Flying Eagles, everything Barksdale said about Culicerto turns out to be true.
The senior takes the inbound, drives up the court and before coming to stop launches a 3-pointer from the right wing
“Watch Ryan here,” Barksdale says. “Ryan isn’t going to lose. That’s just the way his attitude was.”
“I remember I couldn’t believe this was how it’s going to end,” Culicerto told the Register-Herald on a phone call. “I remember running back to try and strip the ball from Windbigler on that fastbreak and I fell into the crowd. I remember hearing some Brooke fans yelling at me and telling me I sucked. So on the next possession I just pulled up for a 3-pointer and it went in.”
The lack of timeouts for Brooke head coach Dave Reitter again loomed large. Unable to calm his team down, they made another back-breaking mistake. The following inbounds pass was rushed in an effort to get the ball up the court before Woodrow could get in its press and as a result, it sailed over the head of Windbigler on the near sideline.
Nabors launches a trey with Woodrow down four, but it clanks to the left and Anthony Scruggs saves it before it eventually goes out of bounds off a Brooke player.
The next inbounds comes to Nabors at the top of the key who swings it over the Scruggs. With his hand heavily taped to the point he can hardly shoot, he launches a 3-pointer from the right wing. It’s good and the deficit is now down to just a point — a far cry away from the seven points it was just 30 seconds ago.
Now the Flying Eagles are forced to foul Chad Cantor with 24 seconds left.
“He was a 90 percent free throw shooter,” Barksdale said. “But we had to foul whoever got it. We had to save time. That kid was a good free throw shooter.”
“Right before he stepped to the line, I told him these would be the biggest foul shots he ever shot in his life,” Culcierto said. “Some of the guys from Brooke knew what I was going to say and tried to get in my way. If you go back and watch it, you can see it and it almost escalated, but we had to do whatever we could to keep that pressure on them.”
Cantor, a 90 percent free throw shooter who made all 16 of his attempt in the quarterfinal game, misses the front end of the one and one and Woodrow secures the rebound.
“We just played here,” Barksdale said. “Even if we had a timeout, we still would’ve played it through.”
Nabors grabs the ball, races up the court and finds an open Steve Ball on the right wing. His 3-point shot goes up and gives Woodrow a two point lead with 15 seconds left.
“I always thought of Steve (Ball) as ‘ole reliable,” Barksdale said. “The other kids always got the publicity. Culicerto was Player of the Year, (Shea) Fleenor signed with Marshall, Scruggs was Player of the Year in ‘94 and Gene (Nabors) was first-team all-state, but the you’ve got Steve Ball that played defense, scored and he was just reliable.”
After Ball’s shot comes the gutsiest play of the game.
“I remember Steve pulling up and I was trying to get offensive rebounding position on the weakside in case he missed it Culicerto said. “I couldn’t believe it went in. I turned and sprinted and realized we were still in the press and I was at half court and realized I was still in position. One thing you learned under coach Barksdale was how to take a charge.”
Culicerto applied what he learned.
With 10 seconds left, Culicerto stepped in behind the Brooke player receiving the inbounds pass and drew a charge, giving the flying Eagles possession.
“Coach always said plant your foot on the sideline and they have to run over you,” Culicerto said. “I was already there and I knew if I stood there and took the charge like a man, the referee couldn’t call it block.”
“That was the same (referee) that called the charge on Ryan earlier,” Barksdale said.
Woodrow inbounds the ball to the backcourt with a 68-66 lead, but Brooke can’t could until only 3.9 seconds remain.
Scruggs goes to foul line, but misses the free throw. A last second heave fall short from 70 feet away, completing the comeback with a 68-66 win.
“Anthony missed the foul shot and came running over.” Barksdale said. “He was saying ‘I’m sorry coach! I’m sorry coach!’ and I said ‘Shoot Anthony, you made a three right before that.’ He was more worried about missing his foul shot. I told him not to worry about it.”
As the video ends, Barksdale reflects upon the first half that led to the comeback in the first place, complimenting how well Brooke played.
“Even though I was disappointed and took the kids out, Brooke played awfully good that first half,” Barksdale said. “We weren’t sharp, but they made plays there that made them look like the favorites.”
Though the video holds great memories, Barksdale insists he doesn’t sit around watching them or even similar performances.
“I don’t watch them,” Barksdale said. “I coach too much. When I watch them I want to coach, so I can’t enjoy them.”
This was evident as he spent much of the viewing correcting the mistakes his team made, noting what they should’ve done differently at different points of the quarter.
After that scare the Flying Eagles made sure to avoid any similar situations the next night as they defeated George Washington 60-49 for the program’s third title in four years.
“We won Thursday night and coach Bolen was great with the kids,” Barksdale said. “The night before we had Click (Bandy) in a hotel room with Ryan and Shea. Coach Bolen could tell something was wrong and asked what it was. They said ‘We hate to say it, but we couldn’t sleep because (Bandy) snored so bad.’ So Bob told me and somehow Click got ahold of it.
“The next night, Click laid in his bed until they were asleep, he got up, went downstairs got in his truck and slept overnight in the truck. Those were the kind of coaches we had.”
Even though they won the title, for many the Brooke game is the one that first comes to mind, both for the lasting legacy it had and how it helped cement the program as a dynasty.
“It took an hour after the game to really process what happened,” Culicerto said. “There were too many things that happened and it took me awhile to figure out. I remember I was in the locker room and I had a pulled hamstring and I remember being in the shower after the game and I became so overwhelmed with emotion and I actually cried. It was the first time I actually cried because of happiness.
“I told everyone it was because of my hamstring, but that’s the truth. It was just one of those games and one of those moments that nearly 30 years later you can’t really put into words exactly what happened.”