Boys basketball: Knapper has big night as Black Eagles top Spartans
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For all the seniors who line the South Charleston boys basketball roster, freshman Brandon Knapper lifted the Black Eagles to familiar March territory.
Knapper scored a game-high 16 points, including eight points in the fourth quarter, as South Charleston defeated Greenbrier East in a Class AAA Region 4 co-final 58-50 Thursday night to advance to the state tournament.
South Charleston will play Morgantown next Thursday at 7:15 p.m. in the first round of the state tournament.
For SC Coach Vic Herbert and his senior class, the trip to the Civic Center marks the fourth consecutive, but for Knapper it's his first.
"I've been working hard in practice, getting time with the first team, and I just got that feeling I can score, I can contribute to my team and lead my team to states," Knapper said.
The third-ranked Black Eagles led throughout the game, but No. 9 Greenbrier East trailed by just three points following a 3-pointer by Spartan junior Rondale Watson to begin the fourth quarter.
That's when Knapper stepped up his game, joined by fellow freshman Kentre Grier. Knapper and Grier accounted for the Black Eagles' next eight points to keep the Spartans from drawing any closer.
"They stepped up real big - Kentre and Brandon," SC senior Ra'Shaud Kincaid said. "They step up every game and they come in and play well, play as a team. We give them the ball and they contribute."
Knapper made all six of his free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter and finished the game a perfect 9-of-9 from the line.
Knapper's final pair of free throws extended the SC lead to 10 with 33.5 seconds remaining in the game. Greenbrier East cut the deficit to six with 15.7 seconds left, but Kincaid sealed the win with his own pair from the line.
With starter A.D. Cunningham absent due to a right knee injury, starter Devyn Harris playing with the flu and two players recently gone from the program, Knapper and Grier entered from the bench to provide much-needed, late-game clutch efforts.
"It seems like every time this year we've had a suspension, or an injury, or a sickness, somebody on that bench has stepped up and filled in for the starter and done a great job," Herbert said, "and that's what happened tonight.
"Those kids, you got a glimpse of what the future is here. Those kids are going to be tremendous players."
While the victor was the same, the style of the game and intensity was markedly different than when SC defeated Greenbrier East 67-41 on Feb. 21.
"Coach told us this one was going to be big, because it's the regional championship," Kincaid said. "We knew we weren't going to come out here and smack them like we did last time. He just said come out here, play the same game. We knew they were going to have their runs and we were going to have our runs. We just came out, played hard and came out with the win."
In the first matchup, the Black Eagles led by six at halftime before cruising to a 26-point win. On Thursday, SC led 30-18 at halftime, but Greenbrier East clawed back into the contest in the third quarter.
Twice, the Spartans cut the deficit to four points in the third quarter. In the fourth, the Black Eagles led by as few as three, but Greenbrier East never pulled any closer thanks to the efforts of Knapper and Grier. Until senior Hunter Moles sank two free throws with 1:19 left in the game, the freshmen duo accounted for every SC point in the fourth quarter.
The freshmen carried the Black Eagles in the clutch Thursday, but without seniors like Kincaid, SC wouldn't have been in position to reach the state tournament.
"I just want to get a championship for my seniors," Knapper said. "Me and the seniors have been working hard together and we're a close team. I'm a freshman, I come up to varsity and they treat me like I'm one of theirs, like we're brothers."
Playing at the state tournament is nothing new for Kincaid, but the senior said he's ready to bring the title back to SC finally, something that's escaped the Black Eagles since 1959.
"Our senior year, we've been waiting on this moment since we were freshmen, talking about it," Kincaid said. "We want to bring this one home for SC. They haven't won since like maybe 1957, something like that, so we just want to bring this one home for the fans out there. They really give us a lot of support out on the court, and our coaches believe in us so much."
With the emergence of Knapper and Grier, the Black Eagles will be a tough draw for any opponent, as Harris' health should improve, and Cunningham is expected to be cleared to practice Saturday, Herbert said. Combine those factors with the consistent play of Kincaid and cast, and this could be the year SC brings home the elusive championship hardware.
Greenbrier East Coach Jim Justice was unavailable for comment.