“My guys played hard,” Man coach Jimmy Justice said. “But unfortunately Gilbert was 25 points better than us tonight.”
Class A No. 2 Gilbert, which has defeated Man in all four meetings this season, placed all five starters in double figures, led by 6-foot-8 junior center Josh Birchfield with a game-high 25 points.
The Lions advance to Thursday’s Region VIII championship where it will play Tug Valley at 7:30 p.m. at Logan High School’s Willie Akers Arena in an all-Mingo County final. The Lions are 24-0 and have won five straight and seven-of-its-last-eight over the Hillbillies with Friday night’s victory.
“They got the ball into Birchfield and he was able to score,” Gilbert coach Jerry Miller said. “I still think the key was our pressure defense, creating some turnovers and getting some easy baskets.”
Quinn Miller had 14 points, Justin Browning had 13 points and Jeremy Brown and Brad Rawls contributed with 11 points each.
“I thought they all played good and not very many of them played a whole lot tonight,” Miller said. “I have to give Browning a lot of credit. He came out and played well tonight, he shot the ball well and played good defense.”
Man had four players scored in double figures, but struggled from the field in the first quarter, making only two shots.
Brothers Coty Bays and Cory Spence led Man with 14 points while Brandon Duncan and Evan Riggins had 10 points.
Brad Rawls put Gilbert on the board with a 3-point play before Bays brought Man to within one at 3-2 with 7:24 to play in the first quarter, however, it would be the closest the Hillbillies would get to taking the lead as the Lions went on a 21-0 run to go up 24-2 with 2:24 to play in the first quarter.
Duncan would end the run with a layup to make it 24-4, but the Lions scored the last four points of the first quarter to lead 28-4 and then scored the first four points of the second quarter to push the lead to 32-4.
Gilbert would lead 45-15 with 1:42 to play in the first half before Man ended the half on a 8-0 run to cut the lead to 45-23.
“We got out early and our defensive pressure hurt them,” Miller said. “We scored early and was able to hold the lead after that.”
Gilbert used another 8-0 run to take its largest lead of the game at 70-32 with 1:33 remaining in the third quarter and still led by 30 with 43 seconds to play in the final quarter.
But the Hillbillies played to the final horn and outscored the Lions 6-0 to set the final score at 91-66.
Aaron Birchfield scored five points, Sean Browning and Blake Burgess had four points each while Derrick Cresong and Cody Houck scored two points to round out the scoring for Gilbert, which made 41 field goals, including five 3-pointers, but shot 14-of-27 from the foul line.
“We either shot 80 percent or 50 percent from the line,” Miller said. “It was a good win for us tonight and we are always glad to get a sectional championship. I have been here for 33, 34 years and I don’t believe anyone has won back-to-back.”
Travis Hurley had five points, Tyler Browning added four points while B.J. Adkins and Scott Earnest scored three points each and Thomas Booth scored two points for the Hillbillies, which made 29 field goals, including five 3-pointers and shot 12-of-22 from the foul line.
Adkins, Bays, Duncan, Earnest, and Kassime Hickman played their final game in a Man High School uniform for first-year coach Justice.
The Hillbillies ended the season with a 7-16 record.
Man looks ahead to next season as they return sophomore Spence, junior Thomas Booth and freshmen Browning, Hurley, and Riggins to go along with an impressive crop of middle school players.
Gilbert now turns its attention to Tug Valley, a team the Lions have defeated twice in the regular season.
The Lions defeated the Panthers 78-59 at Gilbert on Jan. 12 and 61-45 at Tug Valley on Feb. 20.
“We are expecting a real tough game from Tug Valley, they have got some excellent ballplayers,” Miller said. “Everybody says it is hard to beat a team three times, but we are going to go give it our best shot and try to get back to the state tournament.” Tug Valley’s last state tournament appearance came in 2003 when the Panthers were defeated by the Bridgeport Indians in the Class AA quarterfinals.
The Panthers won the AA state title in 1999 and were runners-up in 2001.
Gilbert made it to the Class A semifinals last year before Wheeling Central ended their dream run.
The undefeated Lions have been playing a huge target on their chest since the start of the season and Thursday’s regional title game expects to be no different than the last two game with Van and Man.
“With the season that we had last year, we are going to take everybody’s best shot and to go this far into the season and be undefeated is a tremendous accomplishment for these kids to do that,” Miller said. “We are going to end up the season undefeated or with one loss and either way it goes it is going to be a great season for us.”
Brown, Sean Browning and Anthony Gibson played their final home game at Gilbert High School, but the trio hopes to play in the state tournament for the second time in their high school basketball career.