CHARLESTON — Poca went from elation to deflation. For Williamstown, it meant ending a long, long wait, and perhaps gaining some overdue respect.
The Charleston Coliseum was a cauldron of emotions Saturday afternoon as Williamstown charged into a huge lead and barely held on, downing the Dots 50-47 in a draining Class AA boys basketball state tournament championship game.
The title was the first for the Yellowjackets since 1962, and vindicated their No. 1 state ranking and No. 1 state tournament seed, a status that had been in question much of the season in the court of public opinion.
Steady Sam Cremeans scored 20 points and Williamstown made 10 of 13 free throws in the fourth quarter as the Jackets nearly squandered a lead that had grown as high as 21 points late in the third quarter.
“It’s been a long time for our community,’’ said Williamstown coach Scott Sauro, “and we’re really thankful, really grateful.’’
Poca (13-5), the No. 2 seed, was coming off an emotional 42-40 win against Charleston Catholic in the semifinals barely 24 hours earlier, accomplished when Isaac McKneely knocked down a 3-pointer with two seconds left.
It looked like the Dots had used up all their magic on Saturday, as they trailed 28-9 at halftime while shooting 17% (4 of 24) against the Jacket’s 2-3 zone defense. McKneely was 0 of 8 at halftime and missed his first 10 shots. He finished with 12 points on 4-of-22 shooting.
Meanwhile, Williamstown (17-1) connected on 6 of 11 from 3-point distance in the first half and saw its advantage balloon to 35-14 past the midway mark of the third quarter.
“They did a great job defensively on us,’’ said Poca coach Allen Osborne. “That’s on me. I was running around trying to figure out what to do, and I didn’t have time to prepare for that zone. That’s the first zone we’ve seen in a long time.’’
Xavier Caruthers sank seven of his 14 points in the third quarter as Williamstown’s lead reached its highest point. When McKneely finally scored his first points of the game (on a breakaway dunk with 3:47 left in the third quarter), Poca’s moribund offense finally started to show.
Poca started pressing and trapping all over the court and the Jackets started to make errant and ill-advised passes, suffering 15 of their 18 turnovers in the second half. Over the game’s final 12 minutes, the tension started rising as the Dots crept closer and closer.
They got it down to 37-28 in the final seconds of the third quarter before Cremeans canned a big 3 from the right corner at the buzzer to lift the lead back to 12.
Poca then scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter to make it 40-38 on a McKneely flying bank shot with 4:35 remaining.
It was then that Williamstown’s true aim at the foul line paid dividends, as it went into the 1-and-1 with 4:52 to go. Creamens swished four straight and Caruthers was 2 for 2 as the Jackets bumped it back up to 46-38.
The Dots got within 46-45 on a Kambel Meeks free throw with 1:40 to go, only to see Gavin Bosgraf sink a pair at the line for the Jackets. Poca missed two more chances to tie it on 3s and also missed a driving shot before Baylor Haught closed it out on two foul shots with 15 seconds left to make it 50-45.
All the fury Poca expended in its lengthy comeback attempt brought the margin closer, but also sapped the energy of its six-man rotation.
“I think that definitely played a factor,’’ said Poca’s Ethan Payne. “My legs were almost done, my legs were done in the fourth quarter. Yesterday was a tough game and we came in here today and got down early and tried to get it back, and it took its toll on us.’’
Sauro knew his team’s 19-point halftime lead was going to be challenged, and said as much to his players.
“We told them at halftime, they’re going to make a run,’’ Sauro said. “They’re really good. We will show no panic. We’ll be calm, cool and collected and we’ll respond. But that run seemed to last an awful long time. They ran out of time. I don’t know what would have happened if the game went another two minutes. I’d like to think we would have won it.’’
By virtue of its end-to-end pressure, Poca attempted 28 more shots from the floor than Williamstown, but made just 29% to the Jackets’ 41% and was outrebounded 38-32. Baylor Haught collected 12 missed shots for the Jackets.
Poca was seeking its first state title since 2015.
“Give our kids credit,’’ said Osborne said. “Down 21 and we actually had chances to take the lead. We dug ourselves a hole and fought and fought and almost got there. The second half, I thought we really got after it and played hard. But you can’t get down 21 points to a good team.’’
Despite winning 41 games over the past two seasons and earning the No. 1 state tournament seed two years in a row (the 2020 tournament was canceled by COVID-19), Williamstown was regarded by some as the underdog in Saturday’s title game.
“You’re exactly right,’’ Sauro said. “I never said the word ‘underdog’ to them. We are the 1 seed and we want them to think we are the best team. Today we were. I don’t know what happens if we play those guys 10 times.
“But to win it against that coach, who is as good as anybody in the state, and that player [McKneely], who is as good as anybody in the state, makes it even sweeter. I just have so much respect for them. We talked with our guys yesterday about playing with no fear and, in my opinion, they played with no fear.’’
McKneely, an All-State junior guard and University of Virginia commit who is regarded as a state player of the year candidate, did turn in nine assists, many of them darts to Payne for layups, but was 2 of 11 on 3s. McKneely said he tried to block out the misses and keep his focus.
“That’s what I tried to do. That’s what good shooters do,’’ McKneely said. “Sometimes you feel like you can’t throw it in the ocean, and that’s what happened to me. This one’s on me. I’ll get in the gym Monday and come back even better.’’
Jackson Toney added 10 points and 10 rebounds for Poca, Payne scored a dozen points with nine rebounds and Meeks had nine points and five steals.