CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston Catholic coach Bill McClanahan has faced Wheeling Central enough to know that he wouldn't be seeing the same team Friday morning that his squad beat by 20 points during the regular season.
The veteran Fighting Irish coach was dead on.
Third-seeded and defending state champion Catholic knocked down enough free throws in the final minute to hold off No. 7 Wheeling Central 61-55 in the Class A semifinals at the Charleston Civic Center.
The Irish (24-3), who advanced to their eighth title game in nine years, will take on No. 1 Tug Valley (24-3) at noon today in the championship game at the Civic Center. Catholic, which won titles in 2006, 2007 and 2012, lost to Tug Valley by 23 points (61-38) during the Shootout at the Big House in mid-February at the Civic Center, but McClanahan had to miss the game because of other obligations.
Central (14-13) saw its surprising run in the tourney come to an end after upsetting No. 2 Magnolia in the quarterfinals.
Catholic seemed to be in control with an 11-point lead late in the third quarter, but the Maroon Knights stormed back to pull within three points late in the fourth period. The Irish, though, scored the next six points and hit 8 of 12 foul shots in the final minute to seal the victory.
"We knew Wheeling Central was going to play well,'' said McClanahan, whose team hung a 62-42 loss on the Knights in early February. "They destroyed Magnolia [58-35 in the quarterfinals]. What we experienced with them in the regular season was no indication of what was to come.
"We tried to prepare and get ready for what we knew was going to be a war. I was really pleased we were able to respond to that. Even though we didn't make some good decisions in certain situations, the bottom line is overall I thought we played smart. Most of all, we made free throws when we needed to just to keep enough separation.''
Freshman Chase Harler knocked down a pair of free throws as Central closed to 47-44 with 3:16 left in the game. The Irish used a 6-0 spurt to stretch the lead to 53-44 with 1:38 to go on senior forward Zack Casto's putback and junior point guard Garret McCarty's two foul shots and driving layup. McCarty only played 20 minutes because of a stomach virus and dehydration.
The Maroon Knights kept within striking distance, and when Catholic missed two free throws with 11.2 seconds remaining the door was left ajar. Central was unable to walk through the opening as junior David Park saw his straight-on 3-point attempt hit the back of the rim and Casto rebounded. After getting fouled, Casto made both shots from the charity stripe with 3.1 seconds left to set the final score.
Catholic converted 24 of 35 shots at the foul line to offset 38.6 percent shooting from the floor.