Final-second free throws lift Wheeling Central over Madonna in sectional semi

WHEELING – Free throws don’t phase Wheeling Central’s David Park.

It doesn’t matter where or when he’s shooting them – he’s confident and comfortable.

The senior sinks them all the time in practice.

“We have to run if we don’t make a certain amount,” he said.

And, last year, he drained a pair late in a playoff game at St. Mary’s to lift the Maroon Knights to a two-point win and a berth in the West Virginia Class A state tournament in Charleston.

“I want the ball in that situation,” Park said.

He got another chance on Tuesday with a Class A Region 1, Section 1 semifinal on the line.

Tied at 67 in the fourth quarter with Weirton Madonna, Park caught a pass from C.J. Birch at the top of the key, dribbled twice to his left and threw up a 3-pointer.

On the attempt, he was fouled by Ross Comis with 1.5 seconds remaining.

Park knocked down all three foul shots to give Central a 70-67 lead it would hold on to as Nick Mazur’s desperation full-court heave sailed over the basket as time expired on Madonna’s season.

“If I had to pick a guy, he’d be the one to go to the line there,” said Knights coach Mel Stephens. “That put pretty good pressure on them to get it up the floor in a second in a half.”

Park, and the majority of the crowd in a packed Central Catholic Gymnasium, celebrated fiercely after the foul call. Though the Knights didn’t have a lead at the time, it wasn’t a premature party.

“I tried to get a little closer because (Comis) was still on me,” Park said of setting up the last shot. “I tried to shake him free but he was on me pretty good. I tried to heave it up and I got hit on my shooting arm.

“When I got fouled, I knew I was going to make the three foul shots.”

“That’s why he’s an all-stater,” said Madonna coach George Vargo.

Only a few seconds earlier, it was Comis coming up clutch for his team.

With just under a minute left, the Blue Dons’ senior leader drove in and drew contact as his running lay up attempt was successful and a foul was called on Chase Harler.

Top-seeded Central still led, 67-65, but Comis had a chance to bridge the gap a little closer.

He did one better.

Comis missed the free throw attempt, but got his own rebound and went straight up to tie the game.

“He’s a winner,” Vargo said. “He’s always around the ball. That’s a special player.”

The blocking call, which allowed one of 13 ties in the game, was a simple step and split second ahead of being called a charge.

“The block call at the end, if it goes the other way, the game is probably over,” Stephens said. “I want my kids to step up and take charges in those situations.

“We realize it’s a 50-50 chance. That one went the other way, but we were able to go down the other way and make a play.”

Vargo was pleased with his team’s defensive effort the entire night, especially on the final play.

“We never want to foul, but you have to defend,” he said. “Park is so darn good, he could hit NBA 3s. You have to defend him. I probably would rather have seen that happen than Park hitting an NBA three and us not defending him.”

Park finished with a game-high 29 points and grabbed eight of the Knights’ 24 rebounds. Comis finished with 23 points, six rebounds, three assists and a steal.

Central shot 21 of 25 from the foul line, while Madonna was just 2 of 8 and Comis attempted every free throw.

On Feb. 1 at the Dube Dome, the Knights, now 20-3, downed the Blue Dons, 73-51.

“Our team matured greatly since then,” Vargo said. “Our composure, patience and mental toughness has improved so much.

“Tonight, we needed to play an A-game. We played an A-plus game tonight. The kids did everything we asked. We kept our poise and we didn’t get caught up in the emotion of the game.”

Even Park saw the Blue Dons’ determination. He knew gutting out a win wouldn’t be as easy as it was in the first meeting.

“They’re a winning team,” Park said. “They’ve gotten a lot better since that game. Most of their guys were on the state championship football team, so they know how to win.”

The lead changed 15 times and the largest lead for either team was five points, which the Knights held on three occurrences – twice in the second quarter and early in the fourth.

Harler and Alonzo Manns each added 17 points for Central.

For Madonna, which finishes the season at 14-9, Nick Mazur drained three 3-pointers and finished with nine points, Tyler Ewusiak and Nate Guio each scored eight, while Joey Ewusiak had seven.

Will Bowser added six points, as did Josh Martin before fouling out at the 4:36 mark of the fourth quarter.

The No. 4 seed Blue Dons grabbed 30 rebounds, with 11 coming on the offensive end.

“They did a good job of crashing the boards, getting the rebounds or just tipping them around and keeping them alive,” Stephens said. “They outhustled us, really. We were lucky to win. They got every loose ball and on the majority of them they were able to convert.”

Central entered Tuesday only giving up 53 points per game. Its highest total surrendered was 65 – which the Knights gave up to Wellsville in the OVAC 4A championship game and to Linsly on Jan. 24.

Comis, Bowser, Tyler Ewusiak, Guio, Martin, Marcello Biondillo, Anthony Antinone and Andrew Higgins graduate from the Madonna program as one of the most successful senior classes in school history.

“They’re a great bunch of kids,” Vargo said. “They’re all going to go on and better their lives somehow.

“I hope they come back and watch some basketball with us again. They’re always welcomed back at Weirton Madonna.”

Central now faces Bishop Donahue, which beat Magnolia, 48-45 in a thriller played at John Marshall in Friday’s sectional final.

It will be played at the Brooke Wellness Center with a 7 p.m. tip.

Wheeling Central 70, Madonna 67

Madonna 19 11 17 20 67

Central 17 15 20 20 70

Madonna (14-9): Comis 10 2-8 23, T. Ewusiak 4 0-0 8, Bowser 3 0-0 6, Mazur 3 0-0 9, Martin 3 0-0 6, J. Ewusiak 3 0-0 7, Guio 4 0-0 8. TOTALS: 30 2-8 67. 3-pointers: Mazur 3, J. Ewusiak, Comis.

Central (20-3): Park 7 11-14 29, Harler 6 5-5 17, Manns 6 5-6 17, Birch 1 0-0 2, Droginske 1 0-0 2, Campbell 1 0-0 2, Bibey 1 0-0 3. TOTALS: 23 21-25 70. 3-pointers: Park 4, Bibey.