You’ve got to give Chris McGahren credit — he went for it, ran into some adversity and got himself back together quickly. Had his attempted dunk with less than 10 seconds left in overtime against Northside in the Class 3A semifinals gone down, a solid Western Albemarle fan base in the Salem Civic Center would have lost their collective minds with excitement. It was a relatively short wait for that.
The dunk might have rimmed out, but with McGahren getting a full redemption tour at the free throw line to follow and the senior going 4-for-4 down the stretch, the Warriors only had to pull through for 5.1 more seconds on the clock to tick down.
“I didn’t think I was going to leave that locker room alive if I didn’t make (those free throws) after I missed that dunk,” McGahren said. “Honestly, I just focused on my process.”
Now that took the better part of 15 minutes between the free throws and onslaught of timeouts. But when the dust settled, Western Albemarle pulled off both its biggest upset and win in program history by handing an unbeaten Northside team its first loss, 68-64 in overtime
“We didn’t want to come out and play scared,” Maynard said. “They had the big reputation and were undefeated and all that. We have a lot respect for them and I have a ton of respect for Coach Bill Pope. They have a great team and great program but this was our goal, to not be afraid of anybody and we showed it tonight.”
McGahren’s aggression when going to the basket late spoke to that. His free throw shooting late spoke to what’s always been a staple of so many teams that Maynard has coached. You can’t let Western shoot free throws, and that’s what happened in overtime.
For a pair of teams meeting for a third time in three years in the playoffs, there was a lot of chess and yet no big runs in this game. When Northside forced three straight turnovers with a pair of steals from Nick Price and then the Vikings got a dunk from Jordan Wooden with 2:54 left, the Warriors seemed to be in trouble down 54-53 with Northside and its crowd pumped up.
“We had a couple of bad turnovers and talked about staying the course, doing what we came here to do,” Maynard said. “We knew if we could get into our stuff (offensively) we’d be alright, we were having a good time scoring. We just had to not turn it over first.”
Maynard’s squad recovered. Teo Rampini put Western ahead with a basket an and-1 underneath, 56-54 with 2:40 on the clock. Then on the next possession, Cameron O’Conner drilled a 3-pointer and it was 57-56 for the Vikings. Western answered with a drive and finish from McGahren to go up by one. The Warriors went up by two after Tommy Mangrum hit one of his two free throws. Northside tied the game up at 59-59 on a Kasey Draper layup with 45 seconds left. That allowed Western to go for last shot and McGahren ripped off a three that just kicked out and sent things into overtime.
In OT, Western drew first blood with a basket from Mangrum with roughly three minutes left. From there, it turned into a free throw shooting contest. The Warriors went 6-for-7 at the line in the period while the Vikings continued to struggle as they finished 8-17 on the night. Strickland hit a pair to make it 63-61. With the Warriors up 64-62, the dramatic back-and-forth that featured a pair of blocks from Strickland and Teo Rampini in between a Western turnover. After Rampini’s block, McGahren almost put the game out of reach on his fast break. But with his four free throws he kept the Warriors ahead and they were able to wrap up that coveted first trip to a state final.
“Words can’t describe it to be honest,” McGahren said. “It hasn’t totally set in yet.”
While Northside was able to turn up the pace of things in the second half with a press and the Warriors getting in foul trouble with McGahren, Payne and Rampini all picking up fouls three and four along the way, the Warriors still managed to slow the game down and keep the Vikings from getting in transition.
Western was down 17-13 after the first quarter and 25-19 midway through the second with Northside hitting six of its first eight 3-point attempts. But the Warriors were methodically patient on offense, working the ball down low to Mangrum who nailed six of his first seven shots.
“It felt great, I mean I was feeling it and then the team and Coach Maynard were showing confidence in me,” Mangrum said. “I really appreciate it. Northside is great, they’re really good all around. When I got in the post I just knew I had to take it up strong and make it or draw the foul and it worked out so I was happy.”
Western also got some outside shooting from McGahren to keep things close at 25-24 with 3:46 until the break. With his team down 31-28, Strickland drew a foul in the final seconds of the first half from beyond the arc and buried all three free throws to send Western into the break up 31-30.
“There were several key moments that kept us afloat and that was certainly one of them,” Maynard said. “We had a couple of times where we could have packed it in after a couple of screw ups but we came right back and scored and got right back in the game.”
That set up the back and second half where the Warriors trailed by just one going into the fourth, but held on in the fourth and finished the job in OT.
“It was a really great atmosphere,” Rampini said. “We were always having fun out there but we really executed very well down the stretch. That’s the reason we won.”
On the night, Mangrum had a team best 17 points to go with seven rebounds. McGahren had 16 points and went 6-for-6 at the stripe. Payne was limited with serious foul trouble but managed four first half blocks. Rampini finished with 11 points including going 2-for-3 from beyond the arc while also leading Western with eight rebounds. Daniel Brown had a huge second half to help out in the foul trouble, chipping in eight points in the paint to help spell Rampini, Mangrum and Payne.
The Vikings had four in double figures with Draper leading the way with 18 points. Julian Wooden was hit with foul trouble in the first half but managed 16 points and seven rebounds. Cameron O’Connor and Jordan Wooden each had 12 and combined for seven three’s.
The Warriors have won five straight since falling to Albemarle in the Jefferson District semifinals on February 12. And between a Region 3C championship on the road against Spotswood and then this upset of an unbeaten Northside team that beat Western’s state quarterfinal opponent in Hidden Valley by 25 last week, Maynard felt as though his team’s regular season battles with Albemarle, Louisa County, Charlottesville and St. Anne’s-Belfield played a crucial role in getting his squad ready for this impressive playoff run.
“That’s huge,” Maynard said. “I think all throughout the regular season, that really toughened us up for the postseason. I give all them a lot of credit for our success.”
Western will face John Marshall in the state championship game at VCU’s Seigel Center on Saturday at 1 p.m.
“It’s unbelievable,” Rampini said. “I can’t believe this is actually happening but we’re so thankful it is. We’re going to regroup and go try and get a state championship.”
The Warriors are the first Central Virginia public school boys team to make a VHSL championship since both Madison County and Buckingham County did so in the 2009-2010 campaign. The Mountaineers were the last team to win a VHSL title. While Fluvanna County, William Monroe, Western, Albemarle and Madison have all made it to the final four since then, it has been eight years since anyone in the area has made it to the final Saturday of the season.
And obviously in a family rich with basketball between playing and coaching careers from the three brothers in Darren at Western, Greg at Albemarle, and Mike formerly at William Monroe and nephews Brett and Drew at Monroe and Albemarle respectively — finally getting to this moment meant a lot to the man running the show for the Warriors, especially with this group of seniors.
“When you’re one step away, that has to get your attention to come out and put together some good practices to try and get the job done,” Maynard said. “I thanked the guys in the locker room, they’ve got me somewhere I’ve never been and there’s not a lot I haven’t done in this business. I really appreciate that. So now we just have to go to Richmond and give Marshall heck. I think we might be the little team that could.”