By Mike Bowen
For the Times West Virginian
The opening game of the Class AA girls’ state basketball tournament was a battle of teams in unfamiliar waters.
No. 3 Nicholas County was back in the state tournament for the first time in over a decade.
No. 6 North Marion, while just a couple years removed from back-to-back-to-back Class AAA titles, is trying to make a name for itself in AA with a host of new players.
When the buzzer sounded Thursday it was the Grizzlies advancing after a hard-fought 47-42 win.
“These kids have a lot of heart and character,” Nicholas County coach Tom McGirl said. “It’s a big deal for our community. I’m very blessed to have these girls, and they did a great job coming back today.
“We survived the test and live to play another day.”
The star of the show was Nicholas County senior Shealyn Shafer.
Shafer finished the game with a double-double, scoring a team-high 16 points and pulling down 15 rebounds.
She had had eight of those rebounds in the first half, and Nicholas’ work on the boards kept the Grizzlies in the game early when it looked like North Marion would run away with it.
She’s the leading scorer in Nicholas County girls’ history.
“They were long and rough,” Shafer said of North Marion. “They were good shot blockers. I got a little down on myself after getting those blocked shots, but I had to get back in there and play for my team.”
The Grizzlies out-rebounded North Marion 55-32 in the game.
The Huskies went up 5-0 when freshman Megan Haller nailed a 3-pointer to open the game and then converted a steal into a jumper at the other end.
North Marion forced 12 turnovers in the first half and 24 overall. They had 17 steals for the game.
“I knew they were going to force us to go a little quicker,” McGirl said. “I didn’t think they were going to turn us over 24 times. Credit to them; they played good defense.”
Haller, making her first appearance in Charleston, was the leading scorer for North Marion with 17 points. She also hit the only 3-pointer of the game for the Huskies, who were 1-for-16 from beyond the arc.
“It was kind of the same feeling I had before my first game,” Haller said of her nerves before tip-off. “I was really really nervous. It was a different atmosphere than what I was used to. I started to get more in my comfort zone, but the change in momentum kept bringing my nerves back.”
The game was back and forth for much of the contest.
North Marion’s biggest lead was five points in the first half. There were two ties and only one lead changes in the first half and six ties and 12 lead changes in the second.
The Grizzlies’ Lauren Young buried a 3-pointer, letting it fly with just three seconds on the clock, before halftime to knot the game at 20-all and swing momentum to Nicholas County that would carry it to victory.
“It’s one of those games where the two teams are matched up evenly,” North Marion head coach Mike Parrish said. “It came down to the end, and we had some opportunities that we didn’t convert.
“I told our girls, I think their girls just wanted the ball more on rebounding. Rebounding is key to the game.”
The Huskies managed only two points in the last four minutes of the game, a pair of free throws by Haller with just :15 left on the clock and down six.
In addition to Shafer, the Grizzlies were paced by Young, who also had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
North Marion, which finished the season 18-5, also got 10 points each of of Anna Marie Moscufo and Audia Bartlett.
“We had (our tempo) at times,” Parrish said. “I think we missed 10-15 layups, and it’s hard to get an up-and-down game when you don’t finish on your end.”
The Grizzlies, now 21-3, will face No. 2 Bridgeport today at 11:15 a.m.