CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Keyser High boys basketball team knows it’s facing an awfully big challenge in Magnolia tonight in the Class AA state quarterfinals.
But this experienced group doesn’t fear any challenge, coach Gary Liston said. They also like going to Charleston, this being their third state championship trip in four years.
This year they head south as unanimous Cumberland Times-News Area champions, with a 20-4 record and 15 wins in their last 16 games.
The area championship trophy, sponsored by the LaVale WalMart SuperCenter, will be presented to the team at an early-season game next year.
Keyser, seeded fifth, squares off against fourth-seeded Magnolia (19-6) in today’s final Class AA quarterfinal. Tip-off, at the Charleston Civic Center, is 9 p.m.
The area championship is the fifth for Keyser, the others having come in 2003, 1985, 1984 and 1977.
“It was one of the goals we had at the start of the year,” Liston said of the area title. “We stumbled a little early in the year and lost games to Allegany and Southern, but we bounced back. To the guys, I think winning the area championship was really important.”
Certainly another goal was a spot in Charleston. Senior guard Wes Washington, called up to the varsity team as a freshman, is making his third trip to the state tournament, and revealed one reason why this year’s team has been able to accomplish so much.
“I think chemistry,’’ he said. “It’s better this year than it’s ever been, because we’ve played together in school and we also played out of school all the time.”
Keyser lost to eventual champion Oak Hill in a quarterfinal last year, and also in a quarterfinal in Washington’s freshman year.
“I expect a lot more this trip,” Washington said as he and teammates cut the nets after beating Braxton County 65-48 in the Region II title game last week. “We’ve got experience, and experience is a big thing down there.”
Chemistry can be tough to get a handle on, in the classroom and on the court. But it’s a popular subject among the Keyser players.
“We have a lot of chemistry and it’s because we’ve played together so long, all the way back to when we were little at the West End playground,’’ said senior Dustin Fertig. “We’ve all been there before. We’re pretty experienced and we hope to come back with the whole thing.”
Keyser is 0-3 in its last three state trips, losing in the quarterfinals in 2004, 2008 and 2010. The Tornado’s last state tournament win was 64-59 over Westside in 2003, which was was followed by a 65-63 loss in the semifinals to Magnolia. That 2003 state tournament trip was Keyser’s first since 1955.
This year’s Magnolia team has won nine in a row and ending that streak is a tall order for Keyser.
“They’re big, big and big,’’ Liston said. “I look down the roster and I see 6-9, 6-6, 6-6, 6-6, 6-5, 6-4, and then 6-3 and 6-2. All the big guys don’t play at the same time, but they are huge as a team.”
Marcus Winters, a 6-foot-6 sophomore center, averages 19 points, 5-10 senior guard Matthew Sapp averages 19 and 6-2 senior forward Jordan Moore 11. Zachary Willhoite, a 6-6 freshman, and Nick Blatt, a 6-6 junior, average six points.
“We have to run the break and make it a full-court game,’’ said Liston. “They are just so big inside that we’re going to struggle in a half-court game even with (6-6 senior) Peyton Hartman and (6-2 senior) Damon Thorne inside.
“We’re going to need to hit some perimeter shots, and obviously we need to keep Peyton and Wes on the floor. We can’t have them in foul trouble. If you take a 6-6 guy out of the lineup we go from above average in height to below average and that’s not good, especially against a team that may have two 6-6 guys on the court at any given time.”
Keyser has featured a balanced offensive attack all season, with Hartman averaging a double-double with 12.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
Washington averages 12.8 points, 5.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds, Thorne 10.7 points and 6.3 rebounds, and Fertig, who has made a team-high 38 three-point goals, 8.8 points and 4.6 assists.
Hartman has been especially effective after having been slowed by a back injury.
“I’m about 85 percent. I’m fine,’’ he said after the Braxton County win. His quickness off the floor and leaping ability make him one of the area’s top rebounders and shot blockers. “I’m more focused on rebounding and blocking shots. Scoring is fun, too. I see myself as more of a rebounder and defensive player.”
“He’s not 100 percent but he’s pretty good now,’’ he said. “Even though his scoring isn’t all the way back, on the defensive end he’s such a presence. If he’s not blocking shots, he’s changing shots and is an intimidating factor inside. He’s a tremendous rebounder, even at 80 or 85 percent.”
If Keyser beats Magnolia, it would play the Oak Hill-Philip Barbour winner in the semifinals Friday night at 7:15.
This year’s Keyser team is the first to win 20 games since the 1984 team of Neal Hott. The last Tornado team to win 21 games was the 1966-67 team, which went 22-0 before losing to Richwood in the Class AAA Region 2 playoffs at Davis & Elkins.
Keyser hopes to get No. 21 tonight. But 23 is also on their minds.
“We’re going to Charleston again but this time with one thing on our mind: the state championship,’’ Hartman said after the regional win. “That’s the only thing on our mind.”
Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. Write to him at email@example.com