CHARLESTON – It’s Showtime.
The Fairmont High girls’ basketball team could help the Bluefield High School Lady Beavers make some history. If BHS beats the Polar Bears in Thursday’s West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission AA quarterfinal tournament game beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center, it would mark the first time that a number eight seed will have toppled a number one.
Coach Tony Mallamaci’s troops came within less than a second of doing that in 2018, when North Marion edged Bluefield 56-54 on a controversial bucket at the buzzer which officials later admitted should have been disallowed. Now the Lady Beavers (17-8) enter WVSSAC play against top-ranked Fairmont (24-3) for the second time in three seasons, following a 2017 championship game matchup the Polar Bears won 54-42 for their first championship in more than 20 years.
Both teams enter the event on a hot streak. Fairmont has toppled Weir twice, 73-53 and 97—30, then handled North Marion 47—29 in a physical regional semifinal before rolling over Petersburg 70-29 in the regional title match. That gave Fairmont a seventh trip to Charleston in the last nine years.
With outstanding talent including 6-4 Anysa Johnson, standout Marley Washenitz (who got 20 points before halftime against Weir), Courtney Wilfong and versatile Abby Faulkner, among others, Fairmont not only scores points in bunches – their top quartet can all score in double figures — but can unleash a withering defensive press such as the one which forced 30 turnovers versus Weir and 19 in the win over North Marion.
Fairmont averages 75 points per game and BHS scores at a 59 points-per-game clip.
The Polar Bears, like Bluefield (the football programs have traded victories in the last two state title games in Wheeling) are an integral part of a successful overall program and FSHS coach Corey Hines has high expectations because of that. He thinks the girls’ basketball team has a standard to aspire to because of the achievements of the other teams.
Hines says of the Fairmont ladies, “You don’t want to be the team that does not perform. It’s not the other teams that we play out there on the floor – it’s the other teams in our school.”
Bluefield has also been on the move. For the fourth time in five seasons, the BHS ladies are playing for a championship. The Lady Beavers stopped Summers County, then whipped River View 69-52 and edged PikeView 62-56 in the regional championship game at Princeton, punching their fourth Charleston ticket in five seasons with a 54-38 decision over Westside Wednesday.
Although BHS has a slightly less impressive won-loss record on paper, Mallamaci says that is somewhat deceiving regarding the talent level of the Lady Beavers.
“We played the second-toughest schedule in the state,” notes the 17-year mentor, “but the seeding seemed to be done simply on the basis of won-loss record. Fairmont is a good team but we are not intimidated by them. We felt like we should have been a higher seed. This (Bluefield) team has earned its way into the tournament and I think our girls are battle tested.”
When the cards are on the table, three of a kind beats two pair and Bluefield can play with Autumn Spangler, Jasiah Smith and Carly Moretto – a trio of 1,000-point scorers for the Cumberland Road school. Moretto and standout junior point guard Smith handle the backcourt duties for Bluefield. Both are making return trips to “the show.”
“It is always about playing hard and playing as a team, that is how to get the job done,” says Smith, the leading scorer with 20.1 ppg., averaging 5.7 rebounds and 4 assists per contest while seeming to be everywhere at once in key situations.
“From last year, thinking about that terrible call, we have been motivated to work extra hard all year and hopefully come to Charleston and come home with a (championship) ring. I want to play smart, get my teammates involved and play the best that I can. This is definitely exciting. I am a junior and this will be my third trip. It is an honor and a blessing,” she says.
“We are playing better as a team in this past month,” says Moretto (11.2 ppg., 4 assists per game), who has focused on working hard to help run the offensive game plan, “not just because of what is happening on the floor but what happens off it – we are friends and we work together. We have realized that you don’t have to score on every play but that defense makes a difference and that has made us more of a team.”
Mallamaci has noticed, too saying, “Our guards have moved the ball better over the last three weeks than we have done all year. It has been a major factor in our success lately. Everybody has been unselfish and it has been ‘team first’ for us.” Mallamaci’s staff also includes assistant Tressie Hamm, Rick Lester, Eric Beggs, Larry Lester and Kip McPeak.
Spangler, who not only has quadruple digits (1,190 points) in scoring but also has 749 rebounds in her Bluefield career, knows how special every game this time of year is. She averages 13.4 ppg. and pulls down 9.4 rebounds per contest.
“Finishing with a win at the Armory was really special, but a little sad, too, since it was the last time the seniors will play there. It felt good to close that out the way we did. For myself, I want to bring my scoring but I know that getting rebounds, making steals or helping out on defense in some other way is just as important,” she recalls. “We realize that kind of unselfish play creates a big impact on the outcome of a game.”
Laamaj Wallace, a senior (6 ppg./4 rebounds per game) who has elevated her game in the season’s second half, says, “Here is the formula; play together and take good shots, be a ‘family’ and play consistently good ball. We do not have a lot of depth so when times are hard we have to push hard because it is only us. For me to be a part of this Bluefield basketball program which has been so successful these past for years is such an honor.”
Senior forward Emilee Beggs (6.1 ppg.), known for three-point shooting but a hard worker who has improved her strength and defensive skills since last season, adds, “I think – we think – that defense will be the key. Getting rebounds and making defensive stops is something I am concentrating on.”
Against North Marion a year ago, Bluefield grabbed the lead with an impressive 18-3 mid-game run but NMHS had a 14-2 streak of its own in the fourth quarter to gain a chance at the eventual victory.
Spangler, with one more chance to earn a title, was on the floor for that heartbreaking loss and understands very well that starting strong is not the only key to winning.
“We have to maintain defensive intensity. Fairmont has good size. We know they are bigger than we are, so we have to box out, get in position for rebounds and maintain the defensive intensity we had in the regional game and carry that on.”
Mallamaci adds, “I think Autumn will do a fine job inside. We are working on formations to deny easy penetration in the paint. I think that will be a good matchup. Our front court has helped us a lot lately. Laamaj (Wallace), Emilee (Beggs) and LaShay Totten have given a great effort. Laamaj put up 21 points in one game, probably her best offensive effort in four years. We need everybody to contribute and I have been pleased. We may have Ayonna Helm back for the tournament and that will be a plus. She has size and ability to help us inside. We will need that.”
Moretto knows that opponents, beginning with Fairmont, will key on Smith unless the Lady Beavers work to stop that plan.
“If we all step up and do our part, they (Fairmont) will have to come out and guard us,” she says.
Mallamaci observes, “Fairmont has a good team and they are well coached. When they played us two years ago, we saw some of the same tendencies that they are using against teams this season. Their press has caused several teams problems. We know that being effective against their press, handling that pressure, will give us a good chance to win.”
The veteran coach adds, “After we went over and lost at Westside, we had a ‘nice’ team meeting. We decided right then to re-dedicate ourselves to winning a championship. Since that day we have played a whole lot better. It is like we are peaking here at tournament time and that is what we aim to do.”