By Michael Minnich
For the Times West Virginian
No. 1 Fairmont Senior (21-1) used a 16-5 run in the second half to pull away from No. 8 Grafton (17-5) and advance to the Class AA girls’ basketball semifinals, 56-41, on Wednesday evening at the Charleston Civic Center.
Fairmont Senior will play Sissonville in Friday’s second AA semifinal at 1 p.m.
Erica Bowles, back in action after a torn meniscus kept her out for a large chunk of the season, led the way Wednesday night with a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds. She also grabbed seven of Fairmont Senior’s 12 steals.
“We call that, ‘Welcome back,’” said Fairmont Senior coach Corey Hines. “You know that ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ song? Can you play that?”
Asked about her ability to rebound despite her 5-foot-6 stature, Bowles laughed, “You just follow the ball. You have to want the rebound.”
That “want” or desire was there for junior Emily Stoller as well. She scored 10 of her 15 points in the second half and dished out five assists for the Polar Bears, who have won 21 straight after an opening loss to Morgantown.
“I just told myself to play my game, and I went out there and did that,” said Stoller of her improved second half.
“Plus I yelled at her,” joked Hines.
Off of the bench, her sister Abby Stoller added nine points and 15 rebounds. She was asked to step up her play considerably with team-leader Kaden Whaley sidelined due to a torn ACL.
“I’m very proud of Abby Stoller,” said Hines. “She really did a great job.”
Fairmont Senior scored 22 points off of 28 Grafton turnovers, a trend for the Polar Bear team that prides itself on defensive intensity.
For Grafton, Hannah Griffith scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, but was in double figures in an unfortunate category, too, turning the ball over 10 times.
Tessa Clark scored 12 points and added 10 rebounds off of the bench. “We’re disappointed,” said Grafton coach Steve Smith. “We knew we were playing a really good team, an athletic team. I give Fairmont Senior all the credit in the world. They put so much pressure on you and force a lot of turnovers. (It) makes you make mistakes that you normally don’t make.”
Fairmont Senior wasted little time getting going, building a 4-0 lead in the first 33 seconds on jumpers by Erica Bowles and Emily Stoller, but Grafton rallied to tie the score at 12 after one quarter.
Leading 15-14 with 6:10 left in the half, Fairmont Senior ripped off an 8-2 run, with Colby Thorne scoring four during the stretch.
Fairmont Senior scored the final three points of the half on an Abby Stoller free throw and a Bowles jumper to lead by seven, 31-24, at the half.
The Lady Bearcats cut the lead quickly to three points in the third quarter thanks to two Drainer free throws and a Tessa Clark jumper against Fairmont Senior’s pressure.
“We know we’re going to give up something,” said Hines. “Every press is like Swiss cheese. But we’re trying to create more opportunities than the other team. So not only do you press them defensively, but you do it offensively by pushing the ball up... it’s a battle of wills.”
Fairmont Senior took a timeout leading by two, 33-31, with 5:52 left in the third quarter.
An off-balance layup by Erica Bowles at the 4:17 mark doubled the lead back to four.
That was the end of field goals until Emily Stoller beat the buzzer with a mid-range jumper for Fairmont Senior to increase their lead to seven points, 39-32, after three frames.
A stick-back by Clark ended Grafton’s six minutes field goal drought. Then, Drainer made one of two at the line to cut Fairmont Senior’s lead to 39-35 with 6:26 left.
Bowles answered for Fairmont Senior, then Emily Stoller added a layup to push the lead to eight points with 5:41 to go.
A three from Emily Stoller 33 seconds later, and the hole for Grafton was double digits, 46-35, heading into a timeout.
Grafton got back within nine at 50-41 on a Clark jumper with 2:28 left, but didn’t score again.
Fairmont Senior will have to win the title without the injured Whaley, who averaged 20 points per game. Hines said it’s going to to take the whole team, not “one player” to fill the void.
Bowles agreed by saying, “Kaden’s a big contributor to our team, and it’s a lot to make up.”
Does Fairmont Senior have enough depth to fill the shoes of Whaley and win a state championship?
“We’ll find out,” smiled Hines. “I think it was good enough tonight. Hopefully it’s good enough Friday. If it’s good enough Friday, then we’ll be back here having a conversation and hoping it’s good enough on Saturday.”