MORGANTOWN — After back-to-back state semifinal losses by a combined 11 points to Huntington in 2017 and Martinsburg in 2018, the University boys’ basketball team isn’t necessarily feeling the pressure, but that itch is getting more irritating.
The Hawks (21-4) enter the Class AAA state tournament at the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center as the No. 2 seed, and while they aren’t the favorites — No. 1 Martinsburg comes it at 25-0 — coach Joe Schmidle believes this group can pull it off.
UHS will begin its bid for the school’s first state championship at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday against No. 7 Musselman, but if asked at the beginning of the season whether this year’s team could win 20-plus games, many wouldn’t have thought it.
The Hawks lost the school’s all-time leading scorer in Ethan Ridgeway, as well as scorer Austin Forbes, big Storm Leftridge and defender Clay Bailey.
Most knew what all-state point guard Kaden Metheny was capable of, but there were a lot of questions marks with the rest of the roster.
“We hope that we can get [to Charleston] every year, but we were very young this year and I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” Schmidle said. “I was sure we were going to be better than what everyone else thought we would be because we were so young, but I also know that now that these kids are here, we want to get a little bit further.
“We want to take this another step — we’ve been to the semifinals the last two years and have gotten knocked out, so we want to get further than that.”
Schmidle believes this team took certain parts from last year’s group, but overall, it has formed its own identity. It can shoot lights out from outside with Metheny and cause havoc in the press, but the emergence of junior guard K.J. McClurg may be the biggest reason there wasn’t much of a drop off from a year ago.
He’s averaging 21.1 points per game, second on the team behind Metheny’s 22.6.
“K.J. sets the standard pretty high for himself,” Schmidle said. “He’s a very hard worker and I knew he was going to be a handful. I honestly didn’t think he was going to be quite as good as he really is. He’s one of the premier players in the state of West Virginia and has worked very hard to get to that point.”
The Hawks’ dynamic guard duo certainly isn’t lost on Musselman coach Derek Basile, whose Applemen (15-10) lost the Region II, Section II title to Martinsburg, but won the co-regional championship at Washington.
“Those guys can really score the ball,” he said. “I’m really impressed with the things they do on defense — they keep you in front, they get after you, they can press you a little bit and cause some turnovers. I also think their role guys are just good, solid guys, so you put all of that together, there’s a reason they’ve won that many games.”
Musselman features its own guard combo that can be tough to defend. Junior Taralle Hayden is averaging 13.1 points and 3.7 assists per game, while senior Cameron Williams is the Applemen’s other double-digit scorer, adding 10 points per game.
But Basile believes it’s been a group effort to get to this point, especially from sophomore Blake Hartman and Latrell Berry.
“On the offensive and defensive end, our guys have done a great job,” Basile said. “Blake and Latrell are a little bit under-the-radar, but they were very effective for us and were key in that sectional tournament. Those guys have really come on and helped us at the end.”
If each team plays the way it has most of the year, it will be decided in the backcourt.
“They’ve got a couple of really good guards out front that we’re gonna have to try and control a little bit,” Schmidle said. “We’re not gonna stop them, but if we can contain them, that’ll help us a lot. They’re not real big but they’re very athletic and disciplined — they’re gonna play a variety of styles and tempos.”
The winner will face the winner of No. 3 George Washington vs. No. 6 Cabell Midland at 9 p.m. Friday.
The game will have a live audio stream at WVMetroNews.com.