CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They stole the ball twice in the game's first minute, made nuisances of themselves on defense and built a 12-point halftime lead.
Would the South Charleston Black Eagles handle Greenbrier East as easily this time as they did two weeks ago and breeze to the state tournament?
If not for their clutch foul shooting in the fourth quarter, the Black Eagles might not be going anywhere, but they converted 13 of 16 from the line in the final eight minutes to hold off the Spartans 58-50 to win the Class AAA Region 3 co-final Thursday night at the SC Community Center. A capacity crowd of about 1,100 attended.
In addition to the free throws, the No. 3 Black Eagles (23-2) played their customary strong defense.
"Defense was locked in and keyed in,'' said SC coach Vic Herbert, who will be taking his team to the state tourney for the fourth straight season. "That's our bread and butter, stopping people and giving us a chance. Sometimes things run well offensively, sometimes they don't. Tonight it was about half. Overall, I was real happy. Anytime you get back to Charleston, you got to be happy with the effort.''
Freshman Brandon Knapper, who came off the bench to lead SC with 16 points, likewise takes pride in the Black Eagle defense.
"We get into it,'' said Knapper. "We're real rowdy with the ball-handler. We don't give him any space.''
The defensive-minded Black Eagles limited Greenbrier East to just 14 first-half shots and led 30-18 at intermission, but the Spartans dominated the third quarter and trailed by just 39-36 early in the fourth.
That's when Knapper and his teammates demonstrated their cool. Knapper, given more playing time than usual, hit 6 of 6 foul shots, as well as a field goal, in the fourth quarter. Also contributing to SC's fourth-quarter success were Rashaud Kincaid, who converted 4 of 4 from the line, and Kentre Grier, another freshman reserve, who hit two key baskets for four points in that span.
Knapper, who normally plays 10 to 12 minutes off the bench, spent 17 minutes on the floor Thursday to help offset the absence of A.D. Cunningham, the team's leading scorer with a 13.6 average, who was out with a knee injury. In addition, starter Devyn Harris was hampered by a virus.
On Feb. 22, SC routed Greenbrier East 67-41 and forced 28 turnovers, but Herbert knew things would be more difficult this time.
"Even though we beat them by 26, we knew that wasn't going to happen again,'' he said. "I even said in the paper it would be a nail-biter, and I was right. Anytime you have two teams that talented going up against each other, it's going to be a tough game, and it was. You have to hand it to [Greenbrier East], they played great basketball tonight, a lot better than the first time they played us. Against a team like that, you better bring it, you better play hard. That 28 turnovers the first time was kind of a fluke.''
SC forced 15 turnovers, including 10 steals, on Thursday.