By Dave Morrison
CLEAR FORK – After traveling to Bluefield the last two seasons for the Class AA Region 3 co-final, and not finding the road to be kind, Westside coach Darren Thomas was hoping home would be where the regional hardware would be won against that same Bluefield team.
After the first quarter he had to wonder.
It almost seemed like no place like home best be saved for old movies. The typically fast-starting Lady Renegades held Bluefield scoreless for a six minute stretch of the first quarter, yet still trailed 7-4.
Turns out Riana Kenneda and Makayla Morgan had the answer.
Kenneda had 22 points, including nine during what would be a decisive third quarter and Morgan added 14, seven at the free throw line in the final 2:24 and the Lady Renegades downed Bluefield 54-40 to get back to the state tournament for the first time since 2014.
“That’s what we wanted,” Thomas said of the state tournament berth. “We fixed our schedule up with those seniors (all five of Westside’s starters are seniors and the team has eight seniors overall). We wanted to play some tough competition, try to get our kids a little tougher. This is what we were working for all year. We wanted to win the section first and then be able to host the regional.”
That is exactly what happened and it looked like the plan would backfire. The Renegades had trouble finding offense after Hannah Toler had a pair of baskets in the first 2:29 of the game to give Westside a 4-2 lead. Westside would then for nearly seven minutes without a point.
“Without a doubt,” Thomas said of the doubt that crept in during the stagnant stretch that permeated the first quarter. “I was talking to my assistant coaches, we’d held them defensively and we only got six or seven shots up for some reason in five or six minutes of the first quarter. We’ve been starting fast but tonight we were slow, we were sluggish out of the gate.”
Turns out Morgan and Kenneda had the answer.
With the game tied at 23, Morgan had back-to-back baskets to give the Renegades a four-point lead. Kenneda then finished off a 8-0 run with a free throw and a 3 to make it 31-23.
When the Beavers answered by cutting the lead in half, Kenneda responded with a deuce and a 3 to make the score 36-27 before Bluefield all-stater Jaisah Smith hit her own long 3 to cut the deficit to six, 36-30, at the end of the third quarter.
Not quite done with daggers, Kenneda hit a third 3, followed a fourth-quarter starting basket from Hannah Toler to make it 41-30.
Smith put the Bluefield team on her back but even then the Beavers would get no closer than five.
The Renegades made 11 of 14 free throws in the final 4:03 of the fourth quarter.
“I just knew I had to step up and make some shots,” said Kenneda, who had 14 of her 22 points after the half. “I didn’t really get any shots in the first half.”
Kenneda had 12 during a long stretch between the third and fourth quarters when Westside outscored Bluefield 18-7.
“We had some missed assignments, some blown assignments,” Bluefield coach Ernie Gilliard said. “Our goal coming in was to make sure we knew where the shooters were and that (Westside) had no uncontested shots. She got a few looks there and she was able to hit a couple of big baskets for them. Then we had a few empty possessions and from there they were able to gain the momentum.”
Defensively the Renegades did a great job on all-stater Smith, one of the area’s leading scorers, in the first half. She scored the first basket of the game and had just four free throws the rest of the first half, all four free throws coming early in the second half.
“We wanted to match up with her,” Westside guard Leslie Bailey said. “Any kind of pick they wanted to set on her we wanted to double that to make sure she didn’t beat us.”
Smith did finish with 22 points in the second half.
Often times her teammates would defer to her, something Gilliard acknowledged.
“Ironically enough, that’s been our story all season long,” said Gilliard, named head coach late in the process this season. “She is our best player by far, our most experienced player. Unfortunately I guess I didn’t have enough time to help the other girls build up some of their individual offensive skills. With our shooting woes everyone wanted to get the ball to the person who shoots the best, and Westside did a real good job of trying to limit her touches.”
Westside also struggled early, Morgan ending a near seven-minute scoreless stretch with a free throw and Kenneda hit a 3 to cut it to 9-8.
“I had my doubts, but I knew we could pull it out,” Toler said. “We usually do start fast but for some reason, in this game, we couldn’t convert (early on) on offense.”
Down 13-12, Toler had a basket and two free throws and around five points from Kenneda on a 9-0 Westside run that helped Westside lead by six at the break.
In the fourth quarter a stream to the line ended the game, as Westside had its state tournament berth as the Clear Fork Crazies stormed the court.
“I don’t have words to explain it,” Morgan said of finally getting over the hump and getting back to Charleston. “Ecstatic, really. Shocked.”
Westside goes in to the state tournament as the No. 7 seed and they face Winfield Wednesday at 1 p.m.
Westside has two state titles (2012-2014) and a runner-up finish (2013).
The Renegades won six regional titles between 2007-2014.
Westside 54, Bluefield 40
Carmen Watkins 0 0-0 0, Summer Brown 2 2-3 6, Brandi Davis 0 0-0 0, Beyonka Lee 2 1-1 5, Jaumaria Jones 1 0-0 2, Jaisah Smith 5 11-11 22, Jaylese Simms 1 1-4 3, Erica Poe 1 0-0 2, Ayonna Helm 0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 12 15-19 40.
Leslie Bailey 0 0-0 0, Hannah Toler 3 6-6 12, Riana Kenneda 7 3-6 22, Makayla Morgan 3 8-12 14, Lauren Thomas 2 0-0 4, Taylor Brown 0 0-0 0, Madi Morgan 0 0-0 0, Shyan Jenkins 1 0-0 2, Sarah Brown 0 0-0 0, Katelyn Smith 0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 16 17-24 54
Score by quarters
Bluefield 7 10 13 10 – 40
Westside 4 17 17 15 – 54
Three-point field goals – B: 1 (Smith), W: 5 (Kenneda 5), Fouled out – B: Simms