CHARLESTON – The first half of Friday night’s Region 3, Section 1 championship game between the Capital Cougars and Ripley Vikings had gone exactly the way the Cougars wanted. Capital, who finished the regular season ranked fourth in Class AAA, used their athleticism and quickness to build a 16-point halftime lead.
However, head coach Evan Faulkner’s Vikings refused to have their first sectional championship game end in such a fashion. A completely dominant performance by Ripley in the second half brought them to within three points with thirty seconds to play, but a steal and thunderous dunk by Capital’s Neil Williams snuffed out the comeback attempt and propelled the Cougars on to a 69-59 title win.
The ten point deficit was not nearly indicative of how close the game was, especially in the third and fourth quarter. Senior Luke Layhew and junior Chase Johnson took over, with Layhew scoring 21 of his 29 points and Johnson scoring 11 of his 18 points in the second half.
While the loss is certainly a bitter pill for Ripley to swallow, Faulkner still praised his team’s ability to fight back against adversity.
“I’m really proud of our fight in the second half,” Faulkner said, “They got backed into a corner, fought their way out of it and gave themselves a chance in the game. It would’ve been real easy down 16 at halftime to throw in the towel. That shows what kind of character our kids have.”
Ripley’s second half surge ultimately wasn’t enough to overcome the hole they dug themselves in the first. Junior Jamison Hunt’s half court buzzer beater capped off a largely back and forth first quarter, but the Cougars held a 16-14 lead at the end of the first.
It wasn’t until the second quarter that Capital really pressed its advantage. The Cougars got chance after chance by forcing turnovers and getting offensive rebounds. Capital held the Vikings to just one field goal in the quarter, outscoring Ripley 22-8 in the quarter to take a 38-22 lead into the third.
From the outset of the third quarter, the Vikings took over. Layhew and Johnson were a force in the paint, keying the Ripley comeback with basket after basket down low. On the defensive end, the Vikings were finally able to close down Capital possessions by getting rebounds off of the Cougars missed shots. That allowed the Vikings to outscore the Cougars 18-6 in the third, cutting their lead to four points heading into the fourth.
In the fourth, Layhew continued to bring the Vikings back. The senior big man finished 12-of-13 from the floor on the night, getting tough baskets down low against a physical Capital interior. The Vikings tied the game at 54, but that would be as close as they would get. Williams’ steal and dunk put the Cougars up for good, which was also followed by a flagrant foul and technical issued to Ripley on another dunk attempt. From there, the Cougars closed out the 69-59 win.
“17 offensive rebounds was just too many,” Faulkner said, “That was the difference in the game. We started getting stops and finishing [in the second half.] Luke was an absolute monster. I wish we could’ve put that together for four quarters.”
The Vikings finished 19-of-30 (63.3%) from the floor, including 19-of-23 from the charity stripe. As Faulkner noted, the Cougars outrebounded Ripley 31 to 17, with a 17 to one advantage on the offensive glass. Rounding out the scoring for the Vikings was Hunt with nine points and Eli Casto with three.
Capital was led by Crunch Bays’ 22 points, followed by Deshawn Hatfield and Anthony Pittman with 10 points each. The Cougars shot 24-of-54 (44.4%) from the floor.
With Woodrow Wilson’s 65-44 win over Greenbrier East on Saturday, the Vikings now must travel to Beckley to meet the Flying Eagles tonight in the Region 1 co-final for a berth in the state tournament. Woodrow (22-2) defeated Ripley (16-8) in two regular season meetings, winning 58-53 in Ripley on February 16 and winning again 75-51 less than a week later at the MSAC Night of Champions. With the Capital loss behind them, Faulkner and his team now focus on one last shot at their ultimate goal.
“We have to show up with the right attitude,” Faulkner concluded, “We can’t pout or hang our heads. We’re one game away from our ultimate goal. We wanted to win this game obviously, but the good news is we fight on. One game, everything you got for 32 minutes and let’s see if we can get to the state tournament.”
Tip-off in tonight’s Region 3 co-final is set for 7:00 p.m. at the Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley.