Top-seeded Pats open tourney against Morgantown
CHARLES TOWN – Kendell Smith remembers all too well that hollow feeling of what could have been after Washington was bounced in the semifinals of the state basketball tournament a year ago in Charleston.
That stinging second-round loss to eventual state champion Martinsburg has served ever since to motivate the senior forward and his classmates to make the most of cashing in in 2014 where they fell short in 2013.
Smith, along with fellow seniors and Patriots starters Dominique Newman, Jerome Jones, Maleke Jones and Josh Dudley, put in long hours through offseason workouts to prepare himself for a return trip to the state tournament. Along the way, Washington overcame every obstacle thrown its way and now the Patriots stand on the cusp of becoming the first program since 1985 to finish undefeated and win the state Class AAA boys’ basketball championship.
Last week, the Patriots defeated Elkins, 102-60, in Charles Town to win the regional title and cement their standing as the No. 1 seed of eight teams from across West Virginia invited to Charleston to vie for a large-school championship.
“The feeling of losing inside, that was the worst feeling,” Smith said. “Going down we’re playing not to feel that feeling again. Everybody from the team put in the work because we knew that this year was our year and we didn’t want to feel that feeling again.”
Washington (24-0) is scheduled to play No. 8 Morgantown (15-10) at 7:15 p.m. today with the winner advancing to the semifinals at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. There they will meet the winner of the game between No. 4 George Washington (19-6) and No. 5 Huntington (20-4).
The other bracket sees No. 2 South Charleston (24-1) facing No. 7 Hurricane (19-6), and No. 3 Hedgesville (18-5) facing No. 6 Parkersburg South (19-6). The winners will play at 9 p.m. on Friday.
The finals are scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Saturday. All games will be played at the Charleston Civic Center.
The Patriots are scheduled to play the Mohigans tonight after having not played since March 11, a break of eight days. Smith said the week of practice should serve Washington well as it offers the team some time off and an opportunity to iron out some glitches.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff to work on,” Smith said after the regional title game against Elkins. “Tonight, they got a lot of buckets they shouldn’t have gotten just because of our rotation. Right now I don’t think we’re ready for states because of our defense. But we’ve got all week to work on it. We’re going to get it.”
Senior guard Maleke Jones, also a starter on last year’s team, said the program’s experience with reaching the state tournament a year ago, including a first-round victory over Parkersburg South, should help the Patriots this year.
Jones also said that with Washington being challenged all season long in a competitive Eastern Panhandle, which also produced No. 3 Hedgesville, that should help the Patriots in their quest for the school’s first state basketball championship.
“At first we were a little shook because we had never played at states before,” Jones said of last year’s experience. “Now we’ve been down there before so we know what to expect from the crowd and the surroundings. We’re going to be able to focus more on the games this year.
“The level of play in our sectional helps us, so we know what to expect at states,” Jones added. “We can’t see during our season what down South is like. But Hedgesville, Martinsburg, Musselman, they play good defense. It’s going to prepare us for hard defensive teams.”
Apart from Hedgesville, a team Washington has defeated three times this season, the Patriots haven’t faced any of their potential tournament opponents, including their first-round foe Morgantown. But the Patriots and Mohigans do have a common opponent from this season as Washington’s cross-county rival Jefferson played Morgantown on Dec. 20 during a holiday tournament in Hedgesville.
Jefferson coach Richard Lewis last week recalled Morgantown’s 62-54 victory over the Cougars as being closer than the final score reflected. Lewis said Jefferson had taken an early lead, and only trailed by a few points in the fourth quarter when Morgantown pulled away in the final moments as the Cougars were forced to foul to get possession.
Washington defeated Jefferson twice in the regular season, including 95-62 at Jefferson and 100-58 at Washington. The Patriots also topped the Cougars, 86-45, in the sectional semifinals.
“Traditionally Morgantown is a really strong program that is really well coached,” Lewis said. “They’re a young team, but they’re an athletic team. It’s the first year on varsity for a lot of their players, so they’ve probably grown a lot as a team (since Dec. 20).
Lewis said Morgantown’s personnel likely matches up better against Washington than Jefferson. But he said the Patriots are still likely to win by double digits and are a deserving favorite to reach the finals.
“If they shoot the ball the way they’ve been shooting all year, I can’t really see a team beating them,” Lewis said. “I know South Charleston has really good guards and they have a big man, but I think if they shoot the ball like they have all year in the Eastern Panhandle I don’t see them losing. Especially if you play defense and Washington plays defense.”
For three months, Washington ran the gauntlet wearing a bulls-eye on their backs after being named preseason No. 1. The Patriots cruised to a 21-0 regular season record by outscoring their opponents by an average of 33 points per game, while scoring roughly 88 points themselves.
Washington has maintained its dominance in the postseason with three consecutive victories, including an impressive 76-45 trouncing of Hedgesville on March 7 in the sectional finals.
“You know how people talk about your team peaking?” said Washington head coach Don Bullett. “I think we’ve been pretty consistent all year long. You could say that we’re playing our best basketball because I think we are. I think we’re playing very good basketball right now.
“It’s nice to be a part of the state tournament,” Bullett added. “I think the kids are going to play well. We’re excited.”