Local Sports, Morgantown, Sports

COLUMN: Miscues hurt Mohigans in state title loss, but luck’s hand was the overall factor

As I made my way back to the media lounge and news conference room Saturday night at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center, I was struggling to think of questions to ask Morgantown coach Dave Tallman and the guys selected for interviews. 

It was truly the first time I’ve been stumped. I’ve covered many a game where the team I cover loses, and more often than not, it’s been a blowout loss. I’ve been snubbed before – I remember a particular University-Morgantown Mohawk Bowl where I didn’t get any quotes – and have had to ask plenty of coaches in Jefferson County, “What happened?”

I didn’t want to ask Tallman, Carson Poffenberger, Luke Bechtel or Alec Poland that question following their 47-46 loss to George Washington in the Class 4A championship game. I saw what happened, they knew what happened and I didn’t need to go down that road with them. I eventually found my questions, and I probably wasn’t the right person to open the news conference with a question about how many timeouts Tallman had left. 

With about 10 seconds left, Tallman decided to let the game play out rather than call timeout, which eventually ended in Bechtel getting a good look from the free-throw line, but it clanked off the front of the rim.

“What do you want me to do? There were 10 seconds left, Zay [Xavier Pryor] had the ball in his hands going downhill so you call a timeout, they [George Washington] get to change their defense and you don’t know what they’re going to play – they played four different defenses tonight,” Tallman said. “Zay had the ball, threw it to the corner; I thought Luke had a good look, Luke deserves to make that shot, but it didn’t drop.” 

It was a good response to a good question, but there were three reasons Morgantown didn’t win the state title game and Tallman letting the game play out is not one of them – it’s not even on the long list of “what ifs.” 

First, MHS shot 16% from 3-point range. For a team that has touted a group of shooters from the outside all year, for the team to go 2 of 12 from behind the arc is the biggest reason George Washington pulled away with the win. The Patriots held Brooks Gage and Bechtel to zeros on seven combined attempts and kept Poland at 50% from behind the arc on his four shots. Meanwhile, MHS couldn’t stymie Alex Yoakum and Ben Nicol on the outside, who combined for five of the team’s seven 3-pointers. 

Second, rebounds played a role. Though GW held the very small 25-24 advantage in boards, MHS struggled to secure rebounds in key moments. To put it into perspective, the Patriots secured 19 defensive rebounds to MHS’s eight offensive boards. Morgantown did, however, use second-chance shots to their advantage, outscoring GW 14-3 in this department, but that’s neither here nor there. 

Finally, the game came down to dumb luck. GW’s coach Rick Greene can tell you that himself, relaying to us after the game that even he didn’t know how his team won the game. 

“We hit the last bucket and we and say we’re champions. But we just hit a bucket, a great bucket,” Greene said. 

Nicol’s last attempt was a difficult shot, a Hail Mary. He shot over the tallest guy on MHS’s roster, Poffenberger at 6-foot-8, in an awkward way and it just happened to fall. And Nicol isn’t the typical guy to go to in that spot, but because of it, he’s the hero Charleston-area papers may write about for decades while North Central papers recollect the miracle shot that sent the No. 1 Mohigans to the runner-up side of the WVSSAC history book. Reverse that, and Bechtel is the best guy for Morgantown to take the final shot of the game since Poffenberger, the team’s leading scorer, was down low, locked up in a swarm of bodies and can’t get the quick lay-up and possible foul. From my position, I couldn’t see exactly where Bechtel was, except near the high post, but I did see the shot veer right at the last minute. 

I’d be lying to you if I said my heart didn’t sink into my stomach. 

No one wants to lose in that way, especially in the state tournament game – let alone the first of its kind. Yet, the Morgantown boys had a fantastic year, one of the best since 2016, and, to be unapologetically cliche, have no reason to hang their heads. Did things like poor outside shooting and low offensive rebounding hurt them? Yes, and MHS could likely have built a substantial lead if the shots would have fallen or a few more putbacks had happened. But, again, it came down to pure luck. 

To be sentimental and entirely subjective for a moment, following this team the last two years ranks them at the top of my list of favorite teams. Going from a top-3 team in the state to a heartbreak loss in regionals in the 2019-20 season before COVID-19 shut everything down, to the best team in the state for all but two weeks and one day this season, is a hell of a journey. This game meant the most to me out of everything else I’ve ever covered. And although I’ve already tweeted this out, I’d like to hammer home that, to end my full-time sports writing career with the Mohigans, I’d want it no other way. 

With that, I’d like to echo Tallman’s thoughts: “These guys are champions in my book.” The future is bright for everyone on this MHS squad and coaching staff.

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