By Rich Stevens
The 2016 state high school boys basketball tournament didn’t have its first upset until the next-to-last quarterfinal game.
After the Class A championship, it has four.
St. Joseph won the school’s first state championship in just its second visit to the final eight with a 67-65 victory over second-seeded Wheeling Central, capping the second consecutive upset in Saturday’s finals after Fairmont Senior upended No. 1 Poca in Class AA.
The game ended with a flurry of missed free throws and Keith Clemons stripping the ball from Wheeling Central senior Chase Harler as the clock wound down in overtime to give St. Joseph (21-6) the title.
Harler, who battled foul trouble and sat out the end of the third and parts of the fourth quarter with four, helped the Maroon Knights to the 2014 championship before they fell in the finals in 2015 (Magnolia) and Saturday (St. Joseph).
St. Joseph coach Ross Scaggs was comedic after winning the title.
“You don’t know if it’s all worth it until you do it,” Scaggs said of winning the title. “It was worth all of the suicides I watched them run.”
The running in practice paid big dividends for a starting five that includes four perimeter players who provided major matchup issues for opponents.
When Harler was on the floor with four fouls, it was more noticeable.
Wheeling Central (24-3) was forced to change to a zone defense to protect Harler, who was defending in the post. St. Joseph’s Keith Clemons went regularly at the WVU recruit.
“I knew I had four fouls, so I couldn’t be overly aggressive,” Harler said.
Clemons finished with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals. He had only two turnovers.
“They did a good job,” Wheeling Central coach Mel Stephens said. “They set the ball screen with Chase’s guy. Our plan wasn’t to switch, but they did such a good job with it we had to.”
Two of Clemons’ steals played an integral part. He stripped Harler at the end of regulation to force overtime and again at the end of overtime with the Irish protecting a one-point lead.
“John (Morrison) did a great job of forcing him my way and stepped over and took away the drive,” Clemons said.
St. Joseph appeared to be running away with the victory, leading by eight just after Harler picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench with 3:52 left in the third. The Knights made a run, tying the score at 49, capping a 10-2 run with a Brent Price dunk.
Harler returned at 6:49 of the fourth, returned to the bench 52 seconds later and checked back in at 5:19. His only basket after the third quarter was a layup in overtime that cut a St. Joseph lead to one with 3:18 left.
Both teams had chances at the foul line, but missed free throws from Wheeling Central’s Owen Gainer and Gabe Rohmann and St. Joseph’s Clemons left the game in doubt until the final seconds.
After Deaundra Murphy made one of two foul shots with 6 seconds left in overtime, Wheeling Central called a timeout to set up the final play.
That’s when Morrison forced Harler toward the sideline where Clemons stripped the ball, setting off a celebration near center court.
“All the credit to St. Joe’s,” Stephens said. “They drove the ball in the paint, we had a heck of a time taking care of that, and they rebounded the ball extremely well.
“We battled back in the second half, had our chances, had our two best free throw shooters at the line and came up with a goose egg.”
Harler had 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals while playing in his third consecutive state championship game.
John Dawson, who transferred from Huntington High School after winning back-to-back titles with the Highlanders, had 15 points and eight rebounds. Jacob Strieter added 11 points and 11 rebounds and John Morrison had 10 points.
Gainer led Wheeling Central with 22 points, hitting 6-of-12 3-pointers and adding eight rebounds.
Price had 11 points and seven rebounds.