Harler leads WC to crown

CHARLESTON – What started on the Charleston Civic Center floor a year earlier, ended there Saturday, in emphatic, if not thrilling, fashion.

A year after falling to Charleston Catholic in the West Virginia Class A state championship game, Wheeling Central atoned, outscoring the Irish 15-6 in the second overtime to claim the title 64-55.

It is the 11th Secondary School Activities Commission boys’ basketball state title for the Maroon Knights, which moves them into second place all-time, ahead of one-time dynasty and powerhouse Northfork. Only tradition-laden Woodrow Wilson in Beckley has more with 16.

It wasn’t easy.

“I knew it was going to be a battle,” Wheeling Central coach Mel Stephens said of the program’s first title since 2009. “It didn’t start out real well. But I’ll give our kids credit. They fought and kept us just close enough.”

In the second overtime, Wheeling Central (25-3), which won 17 straight to close the season, caught fire when Chase Harler converted a three-point play.

A possession later he made a free throw to stretch the lead to 53-49.

Harler and teammate David Park, then added a free throw each to push the lead to 55-49.

A Harler floater kept lead at six before Nick George cut it in half with a 3.

But Park, who had struggled most of the game and didn’t hit his first field goal until late in the fourth quarter, hit four straight free throws and Boyd Bibey added two to seal it.

“I thought that was a great Class A state championship game,” Charleston Catholic coach Bill McClanahan said. “I wish we could have been on the other side of it. I don’t have any reservations or concerns with how we played. For Wheeling Central to come out on top after the way we played, my hat is off to them.”

Indeed, it wasn’t what Central was looking for out of the gate.

The Maroon Knights fell behind 18-6 early in the second quarter.

“I got the feeling early this was going to be a strange game,” Stephens said. “When Joey (John) and C.J. (Burch) hit our first two baskets, and David and Chase hadn’t scored, I knew something strange might happen.”

What happened was Harler came alive in the second half, and Park, while not scoring, was a monster on the boards.

Harler had 22 second-half and overtime points and 30 overall and Park finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds.

“The shots weren’t dropping,” Park said. “I just trust my teammates so when I’m not hitting I get them the ball. Fortunately they came through.”

Yet so did Park, Stephens said.

“I don’t know about other teams, but rebounding is big on our board,” Stephens said. “David had a big putback rebound (which pulled Central to within one with 4:52 left, his lone field goal) and even more important were the defensive rebounds because it limited (Charleston Catholic’s) opportunities.”

Despite falling behind, Central continued to fight back and eventually took the lead on a Harler 3.

Park made a pair of free throws but Garret McCarty made two of his own to tie it at 45-45.

Central dribbled the time down but Harler missed on a pull-up 3 as time expired.

The teams traded a pair of free throws and a field goal each in the first overtime, setting up the second OT finish by Central.

“I’m just proud to coach these kids and happy for our seniors,” Stephens said. “They worked hard for this and battled all season.”

“I wanted the seniors to go out as champions,” Harler said. “Really, it hasn’t even sunk in yet.”

The game was the final for McClanahan, who said he modeled his program after Wheeling Central when he took over as head coach in the 2002 season.

“They were the gold standard in Class A basketball,” McClanahan said.

George had 20 points and 12 rebounds for Catholic (21-7) and McCarty had 17. Patrick Hurlihey added 14 rebounds,