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No. 1 St. Joe overwhelms Tucker County

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- St. Joseph senior guard Mychal Johnson sees it in opponents' eyes all the time.

Whenever the Fighting Irish dial up their full-court pressure, panic sets in and the game usually swings in their favor.

Such was the case Friday afternoon as top-seeded St. Joe wreaked havoc in the second quarter in pulling away from No. 4 Tucker County for a 63-31 win in the Class A girls basketball state tournament semifinals. A crowd of 3,000 attended the three-game morning session at the Charleston Civic Center.

The Irish (24-1), the four-time defending champions, will be chasing history today when they go for their fifth straight title against No. 3 St. Marys (25-1) at noon in the championship game. The Blue Devils edged Wheeling Central 45-43 in Friday's other semifinal.

St. Joe began pressing Tucker midway through the second quarter, sparking an 18-0 run to end the opening half with a commanding 39-19 lead.

Tucker trailed by just two points, 21-19, and had turned the ball over just nine times before St. Joe went to the pressure, which led to 10 more miscues for the Mountain Lions (20-6) in the second quarter and a boatload of points for the Irish. Tucker finished with 20 turnovers in the first half that led to 22 of St. Joe's 39 points.

"They don't know what to do,'' said Johnson of opponents' reaction to St. Joe's defense. "We're in their face and they don't have anywhere to go.

"We're one pass away, waiting for the ball to be rotated for us to get a steal. We're really athletic and all five of us can pressure the ball. It's not going to be easy for them once we're up in their face.''

St. Joe tallied the first six points of the third period as its surge reached 24-0 and forged ahead 45-19 with 7:04 to go in the quarter before cruising the rest of the way. The Irish mined 38 points off the Mountain Lion's 32 turnovers.  

Tucker edged within two points (21-19) on junior center Savannah Ambrose's baseline jumper with 4:47 left before halftime. That's when St. Joe swung the momentum for good, leaving Tucker in the dust.

It didn't help Tucker when Amber Evans had to sit out an extended time during St. Joe's run in the second quarter with foul trouble. Evans led Tucker with nine points, nine rebounds and five steals.

"Their student section was even screaming my name,'' said Ambrose, who had eight points and eight rebounds. "When they're up on you, it's nerve wracking, especially when this is the first time I've really played minutes down here at states. Once the score started running up a little bit it really got to us. We really let it get to us. We did our best."

St. Joe freshman guard Mychelle Johnson, Mychal's younger sister, turned in 10 steals while Mychal Johnson had six and junior wing Griffin Dempsey and junior forward Asia Petitte four apiece.

Mychal Johnson, who has verbally committed to Notre Dame, finished with a game-high 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting with five rebounds and six assists. Dempsey and Mychelle Johnson added 12 points each.

The Irish didn't shoot particularly well (36.6 percent), but those easy transition baskets off turnovers more than made up for it.

"I think you have to give Tucker County some credit,'' said St. Joe coach Shannon Lewis. "They came out with some intensity and got after us for a while.

"We had to adjust. We were able to put some pressure on them and get into some things we like to do. We didn't get into early foul trouble so it allowed us to extend [our defense] a little bit.''

St. Joe will be looking to tie the record of five straight titles set by Summers County in AA from 2007-2011. The Irish haven't lost to an in-state team since the 2008 state title game.

St. Joe and St. Marys will be meeting for the first time this season. The Irish defeated the Blue Devils in the 2010 and 2011 championship games.

"I don't think any other team in the state has the chemistry we have,'' said Mychal Johnson. "We've played together so long we know where we're going to be and we're going to get there with each other.''

Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at tatkinson@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4811.


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