East Hardy's comeback falls short, Tucker Co. wins section title, 49-43

Mar. 1—KEYSER, W.Va. — When there's no shot clock, every bucket and mistake is amplified at the end of a close game.

East Hardy spent an entire half methodically trimming a 14-point deficit down to 40-38 with 3:11 left against Class A title favorite Tucker County, but in two possessions, the Mountain Lions all but sewed up the section.

Tucker's Ashton Lycliter scored inside after a timeout, the Cougars turned it over on their next possession, and, with a two-shot lead, the Mountain Lions didn't have to take another shot.

East Hardy was forced to foul, Tucker made 7 of 8 tries down the stretch — the lone miss resulted in an offensive rebound — and the Cougars' comeback came up short in a 49-43 defeat in the Class A, Region II, Section 1 championship.

The win pushes Tucker County's record to 20-3 and drops East Hardy to 18-3.

Tucker will host the loser of the Section 2 final between Pendleton County and Tygarts Valley for a spot in the state tournament. East Hardy will hit the road to take on the winner in the other co-region championship game.

Thursday's meeting was the seventh in the last two seasons between Tucker County and East Hardy.

The Mountain Lions have won five of them, including 62-26 in last year's section final and 77-51 in the Class A state tournament in Charleston — the Cougars' first state trip since 1996.

While East Hardy outscored Tucker County, 24-16, after halftime Thursday behind Nate Smith's 14 second-half points and four 3s, Tucker County won the game with a 20-3 run spanning the first and second quarters.

East Hardy head coach Chris Hahn put the blame on himself after the game.

"I probably coached us out of that one," he said. "We got a little too fancy on our defense in the first quarter. I went diamond-and-one. ... We thought we'd come out and be a little tricky, and they saw right through it."

The defensive formation East Hardy started with is often referred to as a "junk" defense, which is used to limit a team that relies on one scorer.

In this case it was designed to shut down Ethan Rosenau, who averages 17 points a game and made 4 of 6 3s in a 70-49 Mountain Lions rout the last time the two teams played on Jan. 5.

However, the decision backfired, as Trevan Bonner came out white hot and torched East Hardy for 15 first-half points to help Tucker County lead 16-11 after a quarter and 33-19 at intermission.

"We then went man, and to be perfectly honest with you, we don't have the horses to go man on them," Hahn said. "I tried to switch it to a zone late in the first half, and I just couldn't get the personnel on the court to run it. And we had to wait until after halftime to make the adjustment."

Smith came out firing in the third quarter, burying back-to-back 3s from the corner to cap an 11-2 run that lowered Tucker's lead to 35-30 and prompted a timeout by Mountain Lion head man Daniel Helmick at the 4:30 mark.

Trailing 40-33 entering the decider, Jordan Teets buried a trey on East Hardy's first possession of the period, and Tucker County began to hold the ball to shorten the game.

Tucker couldn't find the bottom of the basket despite a bevy of second-chance opportunities, and, after an Evan Hamilton score in transition, East Hardy was down just 40-38 with 3:11 left.

"We didn't play well the second half and they did," Helmick said. "They played a lot harder than we played. We got complacent there at halftime, and they came out and hit us in the mouth. Thank God we made a couple plays down the stretch to get out of here."

Lycliter made the first such play with a bucket with 2:36 left for Tucker's first points of the fourth to make it 42-38.

The second was a steal when Tucker rotated well on defense to close down an apparent opening under the basket.

Owen Knotts and Bonner ended the game with six straight makes at the foul line (Knotts made four of them) to ice the game.

"We weathered the storm and were able to keep it manageable to make a run at them in the second half, it just took too much energy in the second half," Hahn said.

"You see it a lot when those leads get to 15, 16 points, you push all the way back to even, and then it's like, you're reached the mountain and you can't finish it. I think that's a really good example of what happened tonight."

Bonner led Tucker with 18 points, and Lycliter finished with 12. Smith scored a game-high 19 points for East Hardy, followed by Gideon Good with eight and Teets with seven.

East Hardy buried nine 3-pointers but managed just six 2-pointers against Tucker County's superior height.

Tucker County played two of Knotts (6-foot-5), Lycliter (6-4) and Garrett Wolfong (6-3) at all times, sometimes all three, creating mismatches against East Hardy's undersized guards.

The season still isn't over for East Hardy, which will be favored against whoever it plays having swept both possible regional opponents Pendleton County and Tygarts Valley during the regular season.

What did the second half show Hahn on Thursday night?

"That we're worthy of our ranking," he said. "That we're a Top 4 team in the state in Single A. To have that resiliency to not fold. Last year, we came out here and played Tucker, and they ran right through us. For us to get hit, respond, I think that tells you the type of team it is.

"We're a force to be reckoned with. This Tucker team, they've been the favorites in Single A since last year, and there's a reason. They're legit. You saw it tonight."

Alex Rychwalski is a sports reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arychwal.