HAMBLETON - It took nearly 32 minutes before the capacity crowd assembled at the Tucker County High School gymnasium could breathe a sigh of relief on Thursday night.
But once the smoke cleared, the Mountain Lions clawed and scrapped their way back to the Class A state tournament for the 11th straight year, earning a hard-fought 68-59 victory over East Hardy in a regional championship game.
Tucker County (20-3) will be the fourth-seed in the tourney and will play No. 5 Greater Beckley Christian at 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Charleston Civic Center.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Joey Kittle
Tucker County’s Ian Nichols makes a move to the basket against East Hardy during a Class A, Region II title game Thursday night in Hambleton. Nichols had 28 points and 12 rebounds to help lead the Mountain Lions to their 11th straight state tournament berth with a 68-58 victory. See Page B2 for the Class A state pairings.
"We didn't play very well at all tonight," Tucker County coach Tom Gutshall said. "We came out flat in the first half, while East Hardy came out and played hard. I give their kids a lot of credit for the effort they gave."
The Cougars, who played without one of their leading scorers Shawn Skovron, who injured his ankle in the sectional title game loss to Moorefield, never trailed in the first half after racing out to a 22-10 advantage in the second quarter.
Over the final 5 minutes of the half, however, Tucker County turned up its defense, forcing several Cougar turnovers to cut the margin to 30-29 at intermission.
"We tried to apply some pressure on defense to increase the tempo of the game," Gutshall said. "Early on, East Hardy was able to play at its tempo and control the game."
The Mountain Lions took the lead for good at 31-30 as a jumper by Ian Nichols started a 6-0 run to start the third quarter. Nichols finished with a game-high 28 points, along with collecting 12 rebounds.
The lead grew to 11 points on a 3-pointer by Mikhail Lewis before the Cougars mounted a rally of their own, scoring the final four points of the quarter to get within 52-45.
Tucker County maintained at least a five-point edge until East Hardy used a 12-6 surge midway through the final quarter to make it 58-57 on a bucket by Tyler Mongold.
Nichols answered with a jumper and layup off an assist from Tyler Snyder to push the lead back to 62-57 before another Mongold basket made it a two-point contest.
But the Cougars came no closer as a basket from Nichols, followed by four straight free throws from Nathaniel Goldstein and Austin Zirk inside of 20 seconds remaining, made it an eight-point margin at the final horn.
Snyder added 13 points, six assists and four steals for the Mountain Lions.
Mongold had 18 points, Justin Bayse 13 and Korey Foltz 12 for the Cougars, who end the season with a 13-11 record.