CHARLESTON – Tug Valley took the next step toward winning a coveted Class A state championship as they downed Tucker County 67-55 in first round action at the Charleston Civic Center on Thursday.
The Panthers (20-3) started out the morning bracket of the WVSSAC tourney playing at 9:30 a.m. in the morning. The early time didn’t seem to affect the Mingo County squad. Coach Ed May had been practicing his squad in the mornings to get ready for the early start.
The Panther defense smothered the Mountain Lions (19-5) as they forced 23 turnovers and came away with 20 steals.
Tug Valley jumped out to a 19-11 first quarter lead. The second quarter didn’t see much scoring from either team as Tucker County outscored TVHS 7-6.
“I thought we came out really ready to play today from the get-go,” Ed May said. “We played well in the first quarter and defensively we were flying all over the place. I thought we got a little winded in the second quarter. We’ve been off nine or ten days since the regional final. With the excitement of the state tournament – I tried to give some of them a break in the second quarter. I thought after halftime we were able to catch our second wind and regroup. I thought we played more relaxed in the third quarter.”
Tug Valley outscored Tucker County 27-17 in the third and built their largest lead by 17 points with 1:52 left in that period.
“I thought we started off slow,” TCHS Coach Dave Helmick said. “We fought with them. We knew Tug was a pretty good team and that we would have to play defense to have a chance. I thought for the first half we did a pretty good job, but the third quarter killed us. They got some easy buckets. We just couldn’t overcome that big lead that they got.”
Tucker County actually made a little run late in the game to cut the lead to 10 after a couple of 3-pointers, but it was just too late and Tug Valley ran out the clock to pull away with the victory.
“You have to be ready when teams go on runs and stay competitive,” Ed May said.
Sophomore guard Jeremy Dillon had a very balanced game for Tug Valley with 21 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks, four steals and four assists. Sophomore guard Tyler May was next in line with 17 points and he had six steals, while senior Chandler Runyon chipped in 10.
Senior Calvin Blankenship scored nine points, while his younger brother, sophomore Jon Blankenship, added seven.
The 6-foot-4 Dillon was asked about the first round loss to Williamstown in last year’s state tournament and the difference going into this year’s event.
“We have more experience. Tyler and I were only freshmen last year,” Dillon said. “We sort of froze a little last year since it was our first time.”
Dillon picked up his second foul in the second quarter and May had taken him out of the game. However, he inserted him back in right before the first half ended and he hit a backdoor layup to give the Panthers a little momentum heading into the dressing room at the half.
Young Tyler May was asked about his six steals and the Panther defensive pressure.
“You always hear defense wins championships,” he said. “We pride ourselves on defense and you always want to win the turnover battle. The more you turn your opponents over you want to turn them into scores.”
Coach Ed May talked about how his team works on defense during practices and that the competitiveness between his players can get heated. But he knows they leave that in the gym.
“We almost have fist fights in practice getting after each other,” May joked. “But, they’re best buddies off the court. We get after it all the time. We have a good bench and feel we can go eight deep and not lose anything.”
For the game, Tucker County made 23-of-52 shots, including 6-of-14 from behind the arc for 44 percent. The Mountain Lions were 3-for-4 at the foul line for 75 percent.
Tug Valley made 25-of-56 shots, but just 3-of-17 from behind the 3-point line for 45 percent. The Panthers were 14-for-20 at the charity stripe for 70 percent.
TVHS outrebounded Tucker County 35-31, but had 14 offensive boards. Tug Valley had 16 fast break points and 12 second chance points.
Seth Evans led Tucker County with 21 points, while Ethan Crosten added 14.
“Overall I thought it was a good win and we played well,” Coach May said.
The Panthers will play in the semifinals on Friday at 11:15 a.m. versus the winner of Wheeling Central-Parkersburg Catholic. Central was ranked No. 1 for most of the season in Class A.