CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wheeling Central's Colleen McCormick couldn't remember a worse opening to the state tournament during her four-year career.
Sure, the Maroon Knights were ahead by two points at halftime Wednesday afternoon, but they weren't playing up to their customary high standards.
That all changed in the second half, as Central applied pressure until Valley cracked for a 66-27 victory in the quarterfinals of the Class A state tournament. A crowd of 1,650 attended the three-game morning session at the Charleston Civic Center.
Central (22-4), which is seeded second and finished runner-up in last year's championship game, advances to Friday's semifinals against No. 3 St. Marys (24-1) at 9:30 a.m. The Knights handing the Blue Devils their only loss this season - a 57-53 setback in January.
The Knights shot an abysmal 28.9 percent in the first half, including 1 of 9 on 3-pointers, to cling to a 24-22 lead. The No. 7 Greyhounds (13-8) took a four-point advantage early in the second quarter and knotted it at 22-all moments before the break.
Central revved up its engines to start the third period, coming out in a full-court press and never let up in scoring the first 18 points to seize a commanding 20-point lead (42-22) with 3:32 to go in the quarter. The Knights forced the Greyhounds into 10 turnovers in the third, outscoring them 26-5 then blanking them in the final quarter 16-0. Central shot 52.9 percent in the second half as opposed to 28.9 to open.
"The first game's always tough," said McCormick, who turned in 14 points on 7 of 14 shooting with nine rebounds and three steals. "It was a little rough in the first half. Once we get going, we're fine. I think we just needed to wake up, and once we got our reality check in the first half, we knew we had to take over and get into our pace of the game. Get running up and down the court and pressing."
Knights senior guard Emily Bucon added 14 points, four boards, eight assists and eight steals. Eleven of Central's players logged at least eight minutes or more as coach Penn Kurtz searched for the right combination.
"I think it was really a matter of matchups," said Kurtz of waiting until the second half to apply pressure. "We have different combinations that we put on the floor. Some of them press better than others, so we were just kind of waiting until we got the right lineup. When we did, it worked very well for us."
Valley overcame several obstacles to make its first state tournament appearance since 1991. The Greyhounds, who posted a 6-14 record last year, only had a couple of players with basketball experience, and some quit during the course of the season.
"We were right with it the first half," said Valley first-year coach Richie Cantrell, who saw his team make just 9.5 percent of its shots after intermission. "We did a great job considering where we've come from this year. Our bench is not that deep. You've got to give credit to these young ladies. They worked hard all year. I'm so proud of them. I think it was a victory for everyone of these girls."
Valley senior Alexis Payne finally got to step on the Civic Center stage in her final season and didn't disappoint, scoring 14 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking five shots. The 6-foot guard netted 13 of the Greyhounds' 22 points in the opening half, but only scored one point in the second after falling hard to the floor and hitting the back of her head.
"It felt real good the first half," said Payne, who was averaging 25.2 points per game entering Wednesday's play. "I'm proud of my teammates. Real proud."
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at tatkin...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4811.