Boys basketball: Small in stature, freshman big for Highlanders
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- In crucial moments, sometimes the smallest player makes the largest impact.
Diminutive guard Tavian Dunn-Martin started slowly, but provided Huntington with the spark the team needed to advance to the State Tournament with a 70-63 victory in a Class AAA Region 4 co-final Tuesday night.
With the win, the Highlanders (18-6) advance to the State Tournament for the first time since 2008.
"It feels great to get to the State Tournament, especially for my seniors," fourth-year Huntington Coach Ronald Hess said. "They came in with me, this is my fourth year, and they came up with me, and I just feel so good that they're getting to the State Tournament finally, and also for this whole team.
"This team has worked to get here. That was our main goal, to get here. Now, we have to reset our goals and see what we can do in the State Tournament."
While the Highlanders upperclassmen provided leadership throughout the season, Dunn-Martin, a 5-foot-7 freshman, entered from the bench to make one of the game's most impactful plays Tuesday.
In a back-and-forth contest, Nitro cut the deficit to five with 2:53 remaining in the game after trailing by as many as 14.
Chancelor Wooding pushed the lead to seven with 2:08 to go, before Dunn-Martin stole the ensuing inbound pass, stepped back and calmly drained a 3-point shot. The bucket reversed Nitro's comeback momentum and sent the Highlanders crowd into a frenzy.
"I just stole it, anticipated the play, just fired it up and made it," Dunn-Martin said.
The shot was Dunn-Martin's third and final field goal of the game after starting 2-of-12 from the field.
Despite Dunn-Martin's slow start and stature as one of the smallest on the court, junior Nick Tubbs said the Highlanders have plenty of confidence in Dunn-Martin.
"He's amazing to see, somebody that young to come out here and perform like that," Tubbs said. "He stepped up in so many ways that we need everybody on this team (to do)."
Hess said like any quality shooter, Dunn-Martin kept shooting to work past his woes.
"He wasn't hitting a couple shots early on," Hess said. "You could see his head go down a little bit, but (I was saying) 'Keep working. You get open shots, take the shot.' That's what he does, and he's a great shooter.
"He hit some big shots there in the end, and there's a freshman going to the foul line and making a lot of foul shots down the stretch for us, too."
Dunn-Martin hit 4-of-6 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter and finished with nine points in the final quarter.
Dunn-Martin's 3-pointer, following Wooding's score, proved key as Nitro had just cut the Huntington lead in half behind five consecutive points from Wildcats senior Angelo Sirianni.
Sirianni threatened throughout to finish with a hard-fought, game-high 26 points.
Tubbs drew the unenviable assignment of defending Sirianni, but Hess said he was pleased with Tubbs' effort.
"Tubbs played a fantastic ballgame, I think, tonight," he said. "Defensively, that's the key. Your point guard has to be able to slow down their point guard, especially when he's as good as Sirianni is, and I think Nick did that.
"He made Sirianni take a lot of tough shots tonight, he had to work for his points tonight, and that's what we wanted him to do. We knew he was going to get points, but we wanted them to be hard points that he got."
Huntington led 23-21 at halftime, but started to create further separation late into the third quarter, then more as the game progressed into the fourth.
The Highlanders held a 14-point advantage, the team's largest lead, with 4:55 remaining in the game. However, Nitro employed an 11-2 run that cut the deficit to five with 2:53 to go.
That's when a five-point swing, started by Wooding and capped by Dunn-Martin, gave Huntington the cushion and momentum it needed down the stretch.
"In the fourth quarter, the five-point play, that was a killer," Nitro Coach Bryan Faber said, "but these guys kept fighting. They fought for 32 minutes. They never gave up."
The Wildcats cut the deficit to six with 15 seconds remaining, but never closer.
For Nitro (11-14), it was a disappointing finish to a season that included many struggles for the Wildcats, including a previous season-ending injury to key player, senior Sam Neff.
"We planned on being here and we planned on winning," Faber said. "The road getting here wasn't exactly like we planned on it being.
"We planned on being here all along and we planned on winning tonight. As far as for the state of the program, yeah, the future is bright. We're trying to win a state championship at Nitro."
The season, and the dream of a state title, continues for Huntington, though.
"It hasn't really settled in yet," Tubbs said. "I know when it does, it's going to be an exciting feeling."
Whether Tubbs, Dunn-Martin or another Highlander, Huntington hopes its players, large and small, can continue to make key plays on the state's biggest stage.