By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
That loss still digs at the Beavers.
Bluefield was one win away from claiming the Class AA state tournament last season, but dropped a 58-52 decision to Tug Valley in the final game.
There hasn’t been a day that has gone by that Bluefield head coach Buster Large hasn’t thought of that loss.
“It is nice to get back to Charleston, there is no better feeling in the world,” said Large, after the Beavers claimed a Region III co-championship on Wednesday night. “We were disappointed by losing last year and this is a new year.
“I know what these kids have in the back of their mind and the coaching staff and we are going to take it one game at a time.”
Bluefield did that on a cold, icy, snowy Wednesday night at the Brushfork Armory, outscoring Wyoming East 35-19 in the second half to defeat the Warriors 72-56 and advance to the Class AA state tournament that begins on Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center.
Wyoming East came out intent on slowing down Anthony Eades and Lykel Collier, and it worked, allowing that duo just two points each in the first half with a similar defense to what the Warriors had used in two previous meetings with the Beavers.
“They played box-in-one and triangle in all three games so it was tough for me to get in the rhythm,” Eades said. “I knocked a few foul shots down and got in a little rhythm going.”
The problem opponents have with Bluefield is the Beavers are far more than Eades and Collier. Michael Yost would be the star of most any other team he plays for, and he played like it against the Warriors.
While Eades and Collier were the subject of the triangle defense, Yost was left open and promptly canned a trio of 3s and four two-point baskets for 17 points in the first quarter and a 27-18 lead.
“I came out and tried to play real good,” Yost said. “My coaches and family said we are going to come out and support you and I didn’t want to let them down. I knew this was win or lose and I didn’t want to come home empty-handed, we want to go upstate and win the state championship.”
Bluefield has struggled at times this season with size, and the Warriors had plenty of it in 6-foot-4 Ben Bowling and Cody Lester, who combined for 36 points, including 22 in the opening half and 12 in the second quarter, as Wyoming East tied the score at 37-37 at the break.
Bowling finished with a game-high 22 points in his final game, while Lester, who is just a freshman, had 14 points. Josh Tunstalle added eight for the Warriors.
“We went in at halftime and they said the posts were eating us alive and they challenged me and D.J. (Edwards) to step up,” Bluefield’s Corey Coppola said. “We accepted their challenge and I think we did pretty good in the second half...
“40 (Bowling) and 20 (Lester) are good basketball players and they are real physical. We tried to be more physical than them in the second half and we started boxing out better and jumping better with them.”
Wyoming East never led in the game, but did tie it for a second time at 39. Bluefield then used its patented pressure to force a pair of turnovers, leading to a 7-0 run, paced by Collier’s drive to the hoop, a nifty no-look pass from Collier to Coppola under the basket and a 3 by Yost for the 46-39 lead.
Turnovers proved costly to Wyoming East, which committed 19 miscues in the game.
“We knew coming out we had our backs against the wall when it was a tie game,” Collier said. “We wanted to jump on them quickly and we knew we had to get stops down here on the defensive end so we just pressured the guards a little bit and they had turnovers so they really couldn’t get their shots. That was just our pressure ‘d’ where we made sure their guards turned the ball over.”
While the strategy worked, so did the task of slowing down the Warriors’ size, with Wyoming East managing just five baskets in the second half, and no points at all for nearly a five minute stretch late in the third and into the fourth quarter.
“They killed us in the first and second quarter inside and then they told us at halftime we had to get on Lester,” Eades said. “We did that and we slowed them down.”
Bluefield used just one player off the bench, sophomore guard Jordan Ponder, who handled the ball at times, while making a pair of second half baskets, which was fine with Collier.
“That means we have four shooters and two ballhandlers (in the game) and it just takes a lot of pressure off of me just bringing the ball up because he can set the plays up too,” Collier said.
One of those field goals came after Ponder passed up a wide-open shot opportunity, and Collier not only motioned him to shoot, but his brothers — former Bluefield standouts Ansel and Craig Ponder — jumped up from their front row seats and urged him to shoot.
He got the ball back, drove into the lane and made the shot.
“He did a tremendous job,” Large said. “He has to got to get a lot more confidence, a lot more confidence in his game.”
Wyoming East didn’t score for nearly five minutes after cutting the margin to 51-47 lead in the third quarter, and the Beavers outscored the Warriors 8-0 to pull away before the Warriors stopped the drought with a Bowling basket with 4:21 left to cut the lead to 59-49.
That was close as the Warriors — who know a thing about winning championships — would get. Wyoming East won state titles in 2002, ‘07 and ‘08, while falling short in the finals in ‘09 and ‘10.
“We did a good job for 2 1/ 2 quarters and then we quit scoring the ball,” Wyoming East head coach Rory Chapman said. “When that happens against a team like Bluefield, they pour in the points, they have got scorers and that was the difference in the game.
“We quit scoring and we quit getting it in there and they kept scoring.”
Bluefield placed four players in double figures, led by Yost with 20 points and five steals, Eades with 16 (14 for 14 in free throws), 13 by Edwards and 10 points, 11 assists and four steals from Collier.
Coppola added nine points for the Beavers.
No one was more proud than Large, who will learn the seedings during a meeting on Sunday. Bluefield will open play on Thursday, in what they hope is the first of three games in a span of three days for a state championship.
“I just felt like it was a team effort, all 14 players and all our coaching staff,” Large said. “We are all in this together and we are very proud of Bluefield High School and this basketball team right now and believe me, I hope we made Bluefield High School proud tonight.”
The Beavers, who have been the top-ranked Class AA team in West Virginia for much of the season, are expected to be top seed out of the eight teams. Westside, Fairmont Senior, Scott and Tolsia have already punched their tickets to Charleston.
Three games will be played tonight to determine the other three, including Bridgeport vs. Frankfort, North Marion vs. Webster County and Keyser vs. Robert C. Byrd.
While most of the players on the current Bluefield roster experienced the loss to Tug Valley last season, Coppola did not, having transferred from Graham this year.
He can’t wait to get a taste of state tournament play.
“I don’t know how it feels, but I think it is going to be a great experience,” Coppola said. “I am ready to help these guys finish up what they didn’t get to finish last year.”
Bluefield (22-3) won state championships in 1995 and ‘96, and have lost in the final game four times, in ‘97, ‘99, ‘06 and ‘12.
—Contact Brian Woodson