CHARLESTON — It had been 15 months, 28 games, and one life-altering pandemic since the North Marion girls’ basketball team last experienced the bitter taste of defeat, but on Friday, with a state championship berth on the line, Nitro finally toppled a Huskies empire not even COVID-19 could crumble with a 79-63 victory to advance to Saturday’s Class AAA state title game against the winner of the game between No. 1 Fairmont Senior and No. 4 Logan.

The No. 3-seeded Wildcats, armed with one of the state’s premier stars in senior Baylee Goins but also so much more, became the first team to defeat No. 2 North Marion since Martinsburg edged the Huskies 56-55 on Jan. 20, 2020, in the East Fairmont Classic. The breakthrough victory for Nitro, meanwhile, secured the program its first state championship game appearance since 2001.

“When I took the job at Nitro, the ultimate goal was to play for a state title and win a state championship...not for me, because I won a state championship in high school and I told them it feels great, and hopefully (our girls) get to experience that as well,” said Nitro coach Pat Jones. “And it’s like I’ve said day in and day out about these girls, they handle the constructive criticism so well — I yell, I’m not gonna lie, I yell a lot, but they don’t tuck their heads, they come out and they keep fighting and it showed today.

”North Marion is obviously a great team — they’re undefeated and they’re here for a reason — but these girls came out and they didn’t worry about the name on the other team’s jersey, they came out and played Nitro basketball.”

The Wildcats (13-1) ultimately etched their path to the touchstone moment of a state title game and sank the Huskies (14-1) in the third quarter when they reeled off a 15-2 run over a three-minute stretch, took a 14-point lead at 55-41 and entered the fourth quarter up by 12 at 55-43.

“It was just one of those days where shots didn’t fall, and we didn’t force turnovers — I think that was probably the first game this year where we had more turnovers at halftime than an our opponent,” said North Marion coach Mike Parrish, who went into Friday seeking his fifth-ever championship game appearance in his 18 seasons as Huskies coach. ”We let them get going offensively, and then for us offensively, we were a little stagnant, standing around and not really attacking and nothing was falling.

”That about sums it up.”

While Nitro leaned on its pairing of Goins and sophomore guard Taylor Maddox, who combined to score 50 of the team’s 79 points, to uplift its offensive efficiency just enough, North Marion was never able to tap into the full breadth of its scoring repertoire, as the Huskies shot 31.6% from the field, including 5-of-31 from beyond the arc.

“That’s one thing you can’t control is whether they go in or not. You just have to keep taking [shots],” Parrish said of his team’s shooting woes despite a healthy diet of clean, quality looks from deep. “We just didn’t make shots, and that’s basketball.”

Nitro, by contrast, overcame its own icy 13-of-43 (30.2%) shooting performance in the first half with a sizzling 17-of-25 (68%) display in the second, as Goins nearly single-handedly manufactured point-blank looks for the Wildcats against North’s vaunted 2-2-1 press while Maddox went scorched Earth from all over the court.

Goins finished the game with 20 points on 7-of-22 shooting, including 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the second half, and nine assists, while Maddox went off for a game-high 30 points on 11-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-7 from deep, to deliver the clutch performance of her life.

”I don’t know what got into her today,” Jones said of Maddox, who scored 21 of 30 points in the second half. “I got into her at the end of the first quarter, and I told her, ‘I don’t know if you got caught in traffic, or if you’re on vacation, but I need you here the rest of this game,’ and it showed. I mean, she played an outstanding game.”

”And I can’t say enough about (Goins) — it’s night in and night out she’s getting double teamed and triple teamed and she just stays so composed. She doesn’t get frustrated, she doesn’t run her mouth, she doesn’t do anything, and she had 20 more points today in a hard-fought victory.”

”Pat, he got into me, and I just went all out and shot the ball like he told me to,” Maddox said.

”Her dropping 30 was huge, because it opened everything up,” Goins said. “Normally, if I can’t hit shots or I’m getting double teamed, if we can knock down some shots, things open up and her doing all that, it opened everything up. They had no answer for it.”

Nitro also got a game-high 13 rebounds from birthday girl Brooklyn Bowen to go with seven points and five assists, and Patricia Ward added another six points and eight rebounds.

North Marion was led by sophomore Olivia Toland with a double-double of 22 points and 12 rebounds, while Emma Freels scored 14 points and Adryan Stemple had 10 points, to go with eight rebounds and a team-high five steals. Karlie Denham had another nine points, nine rebounds and four assists, and Katlyn Carson grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds and recorded a game-high six blocks, to go with four points, three assists and three steals.

“We knew what they were going to do, and it just came down to what we had to do,” Parrish said. “We had a plan coming in and we just didn’t do a very good job of executing it.”

At the heart of North Marion’s disappointment and Nitro’s triumph were the teamwide shooting splits, sure, but also the ever-present game within the game when it comes to the Huskies’ trademark full-court pressure. North’s usual 2-2-1 press, turbo-boosted the pace of play, but the Wildcats, with Goins as a playmaking fulcrum and a studied teamwide game plan, concocted an antidote that saw Nitro win the turnover margin 17-19 and the transition game 16-12.

”We were here on Wednesday and saw their 2-2-1, and it’s similar to our press where they want to escort you up the court and not so much trap, and we worked on it yesterday in practice for about an hour,” Jones said. “We noticed (Wednesday) against Hampshire, they left the backside wide open, so we were looking for the long pass down court to get easy layups.”

Goins offered Jones and the Wildcats a bit of a cheat code in their press-breaking equation as she slingshotted one-handed skip passes and longballs over the top of NMHS defenders in ways perhaps no other player in the state is capable of. But the Wildcats also leveraged Goins’ constant attention to unearth easier tic-tac-toe passing sequences through the middle and attack the pressure’s backside. And there were an additional handful of instances where Nitro burned North’s glass crashing and defensive aggression immediately after a shot by whipping long outlet passes to Maddox for breakaway layups.

”We wanted to have Baylee taking it out and getting it back for a clear out,” Jones said, “but even if Baylee doesn’t have the ball, we have other people who can dribble the ball and that’s what I tried to explain to them during the game is don’t panic and stay composed — we believe in you, I wouldn’t have you on the court if I didn’t believe in you, so when you get it, turn and look up court and don’t just look for Baylee.”

”We didn’t really do a good job on (Goins) (in the press),” Parrish said. “We let her get by us some — I told (our players) don’t go for steals, just try to keep in her in front — but she got by us and that led to transition buckets for them or open looks for (Maddox). And (Maddox), she hit everything she shot — our plan coming in was to make sure we guarded her and we lost her a bunch of times and she made us pay.”

Despite the wobbliness of the press and the cold perimeter shooting, North Marion mounted multiple rallies in the second half after going into the break down 30-22. They ripped off a 17-9 surge in the first five minutes of the third quarter, as Stemple scored four straight over a stretch and Toland attacked the hoop at will, with nine points in the third period alone.

The Huskies sliced the gap to just one at 40-39 with 3:21 to go in the third, but Nitro immediately regained a bit of breathing room with a jumper by Bowen, a 3 by Maddox off an offensive rebound and a Eurostep finish in transition by Goins. A jumper by Emily Lancaster and a second 3 by Maddox off a drive-and-kick assist by Goins kept the run going as Nitro went up 55-41.

The Huskies summoned one last gasp five minutes into the fourth with a mini spurt that narrowed the gap to 66-56, and North Marion had a layup on the ensuing possession that would’ve whittled the margin to just eight. But NMHS missed the chippie and Goins tore down the floor off a quick outlet for an and-one layup to essentially clinch the touchstone victory for Nitro.

”We made that run to cut it to one (at 40-39) and then we had a couple of critical turnovers and they went down and converted,” Parrish said. “And then they were up and we got a steal and had that layup attempt, but we missed it and they go down and get a three-point play. I think if that layup goes in, that might’ve given us a chance to get back in it.”

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.

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