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Senate adopts resolution that could lead to personal property tax changes

Senators swiftly adopted a resolution that could allow lawmakers to lower personal property taxes paid by businesses on inventory, machinery and equipment as well as the taxes people pay on their vehicles.

As the legislative hour grew late on the final day, the chairmen of Judiciary and Finance withdrew amendments adopted by their committees, possibly to make it easier for delegates to just acknowledge a version they’d already passed March 31.

Senators adopted the resolution 29-5. There was no debate at all tonight.

That’s not the end of the process. Voters would weigh in on the possible amendment to the state Constitution, where property taxes are defined.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said that issue would be on ballots for the next General Election in 2022.

HJR 3 could lead to a Constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to make changes to the property taxes that businesses pay on inventory, machinery and equipment. The exemptions also could apply to people’s automobiles.

Manufacturers point to West Virginia’s position as an outlier in taxing inventory, machinery and equipment, saying the taxes create a competitive disadvantage for the state.

If voters approve a constitutional amendment to give the Legislature more flexibility, future lawmakers could decide to change those tax rates or provide exemptions.

A fiscal note reached no conclusion about the potential cost: “There is no way to know what exemptions for real and personal property, rate changes or changes to assessment levels that future Legislature may enact.”

Most of the money from personal property tax goes to county school boards, county commissions and municipalities.

Representatives from those government bodies have already expressed concern about how the money might be made up.

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Justice says he’ll let bill restricting transgender students’ sports options become law

Gov. Jim Justice says he’ll let a bill restricting how transgender athletes can participate in school sports become law in West Virginia.

“What I’ll plan to do is either let it go into law or sign it,” Justice said during a Saturday night briefing about the end of the legislative session. “I don’t know which one quite yet.”

If he does that, Justice would become the fourth governor in America to accept such a bill. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was the latest governor to sign a similar bill into law, joining Mississippi and Arkansas.

West Virginia would join dozens of states placing restrictions on transgender athletes’ participation on sports teams.

The state Senate passed a bill on Thursday, and the House of Delegates voted to agree the next day, completing legislation.

Advocates for the bill said it would protect young female athletes from competing against stronger athletes who were born male.  Justice, who is also a high school girls basketball coach, was in that category. “From the standpoint of our girls, especially, in middle school and high school it discriminates,” he said.

Opponents said the bill is discriminatory, mean-spirited, a likely turnoff for business investment and a possible conflict with competition under the NCAA.

Andrew Schneider

“If this bill becomes law, it will be a legal and financial disaster for our state,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia.

The Senate Education Committee changed an early version of the bill, dropping a requirement for proof of gender and instead saying “any student aggrieved by a violation” may bring an action against a county board or state institution of higher education. And the committee extended the bill to apply to sports at the college level.

NCAA guidelines permit transgender athletes to compete for college teams after at least a year of testosterone-suppression treatment. More than 500 student-athletes have signed a letter  to the NCAA, pushing a halt to championship events in states that restrict or aim to restrict transgender athletes.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem issued a partial veto of a similar bill, citing caution over how intercollegiate athletics organizations might react. Noem later issued a weaker executive order.

Justice said he supports the bill’s application at the middle school and high school levels. “I am 100 percent for the bill from the standpoint of the middle schools and the high schools,” he said.

But he expressed concern about it at the collegiate level.

“It concerns me that we may miss out on a really important sporting event or something that could come to West Virginia that we miss out on,” the governor said.

Advocates for LGBTQ communities have said the bill could further ostracize young transgender students who may already struggle with their place in society. Fairness West Virginia had been urging Justice to veto the bill.

“He needs to veto this bill as soon as it makes its way to his desk,” said Schneider of Fairness West Virginia.

In the end, Justice said, he approves of the bill.

“I think the benefits of it way outweigh the bad part of it,” he said.

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Legislature passes a syringe exchange bill with more restrictions, including ID requirement

Senators amended a bill regulating syringe exchanges in West Virginia communities to make it more restrictive.

Once the amendment was adopted, Senators passed the bill 27-7. A few hours later, the majority in the House of Delegates agreed to the amended version and passed it 67-32 after impassioned debate, completing legislation.

Barbara Fleischauer

“There are people who are going to die,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, who opposed the changes. “Our neighbors who didn’t need to die will die.”

The amendment adopted today in the Senate would require identification for those who use community harm reduction services, including needle exchanges. Advocates of the programs have said identification requirements often deter participants, potentially discouraging them from participating in other aspects of harm reduction such as vaccinations or addiction counseling.

Mike Maroney

“The ID part is more restrictive, and that’s been a point of contention between the two sides,” said Senate Health Chairman Mike Maroney, R-Marshall.

But he seemed to suggest the ID requirement could also promote buy-in from participants.

“Having an ID and taking that first step and having an identification card is maybe the first big step towards potential recovery,” Maroney said.

Another change would require any existing provider not offering a full array of harm reduction services to cease offering a syringe exchange program.

That includes wellness checks, wound treatment from needle sticks, screening from communicable diseases, vaccination availability and counseling.

“The wraparound services, to me, that’s the most important part of this bill,” Maroney said.

“These programs are intended to hand out needles and syringes that are clean for a period of time with the hopes of keeping those clients safe from disease until maybe a certain percentage of them can benefit from some of those wrap around services. If the wraparound services were not part of this bill, I’d really wonder what we’re doing. I’d urge adoption.”

Senate Bill 334 has generated significant debate because of the high stakes for communities facing the health consequences of addiction. West Virginia has been among states with the highest rates of death from drug overdoses. West Virginia communities are also at risk for HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks.

The bill would establish a licensing requirement for syringe exchange programs and establish a goal of one-to-one exchange of needles. The bill includes immunity for providers and civil penalties for non-compliance, from $500 up to $10,000. On Friday, delegates amended the bill to add in a requirement of municipality support.

Tom Takubo

“Some feel it’s too restrictive, some not restrictive enough,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha. “There are things inside this bill that I think have high value, not only for West Virginia but for the country.”

Takubo, a doctor, spoke approvingly of an element of the bill that would require syringes being marked specifically to identify the community program that distributed them.

“This potential legislation has some benefits to answer some really big questions,” Takubo said. “It gives us the opportunity not only help the indiviuals but to answer some questions about the programs.”

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention says syringe exchange programs are an important way of reducing HIV and hepatitis C infections.

“For people who inject drugs, the best way to reduce the risk of acquiring and transmitting disease through injection drug use is to stop injecting drugs,” according to the CDC.

“For people who do not stop injecting drugs, using sterile injection equipment for each injection can reduce the risk of acquiring and transmitting infections and prevent outbreaks.”

Maroney, a radiologist, said he once thought a bill like the one up for passage in the Legislature was not in line with expert recommendations. But he said he has started taking community concerns into consideration.

“There’s more to science than this issue. There’s more to society,” he said. “I didn’t grasp the big picture last year.”

He concluded, “We tried to find a hybrid between what the science tells you and what the community tells you.”

Critics of the bill as it first passed the Senate said it would be so restrictive that no syringe exchange programs could be sustained in West Virginia.

That criticism remained today as senators passed the bill again.

Ron Stollings

“This is too restrictive in a state that’s experiencing an HIV and Hep C epidemic,” said Senator Ron Stollings, D-Boone.

Stollings, a doctor, said the legislation would take away the ability of people with addictions to access clean syringes.

“I think we’re setting up a recipe for disaster,” he said. “This is a kneejerk response to needle litter. So I urge a no vote.”




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Governor says he’ll hit the road right away to persuade citizens about tax bill

Gov. Jim Justice says he won’t give up on his big tax plan that was voted down 0-100 by the House of Delegates a day ago.

“I’m going to go out on the road immediately,” Justice said during a Saturday night briefing meant to address the end of the regular legislative session.

The governor reiterated his belief that a sharp income tax cut would make West Virginia enticing for people to move. He contends the move would result in significant population growth for the state.

But he said citizens may not see it his way yet.

“I’m telling you, when the voice of the people really hear this, they’re not going to go away quietly,” the governor said.

The governor has talked about a big income tax cut since the day after the General Election. He made that push the central point of his State of the State address. Then he had a series of town hall events to promote the cut.

Senators narrowly passed a bill, 18-16, Wednesday evening to make a big initial income tax cut while also raising and expanding sales taxes. The governor praised the Senate for embracing that plan.

Delegates have worried about how increasing sales taxes would affect West Virginia households and small businesses. The House’s Republican supermajority passed an earlier plan that cut $150 million a year in income taxes, anticipating a phase-out over about a dozen years, without the offsetting tax increases.

At midday Friday, Justice criticized the House of Delegates for not taking up the bill. He suggested they would just table it. “I would hate to be a delegate that is sitting on their hands,” he said.

A couple of hours after that, delegates voted it down 0-100.

“To be perfectly honest was a grandstanding kind of move,” Justice said tonight. “They are so proud to say the vote was 100 to goose eggs.”

He suggested many of those delegates actually voted against their true view of the bill.

“When politics gets going with the snowball going down the side of the mountain, it gets out of control,” he said. “We all know it’s physically impossible to think that a hundred of those folks — that there isn’t a goodly percentage of those folks are all on board. But when leadership is pushing and everything, it gets going downhill.”

Roger Hanshaw

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw on Friday said he hadn’t expected the complicated bill could pass during the 60-day session, given how late lawmakers received a bill and how far apart the chambers seemed. He was open to ongoing consideration, though, and said he would like further, rigorous examination.

“Look, this goal is important. It’s important to the entire Legislature. It’s important to the governor, and I believe it’s important to the people of West Virginia,” Hanshaw said.

“But we will not do it recklessly. We will not do this without some basis for the decisions we make. And a gut feeling and a positive reaction is not a basis on which to make any decision, much less a decision about half the state’s entire general revenue budget.”

The governor tonight reiterated his belief that delegates have been swayed by “out-of-state” lobbyists.

“I just think the out-of-state lobbyists drive a lot of what’s going on,” he said. “The lobbyists can become a real problem.

“Let’s just be brutally honest: When I’ve got out-of-state people that are lobbyists that are putting on a fundraiser for me, and I’m running in the House of Delegates and it takes $30,000 or $40,000 to get me across the finish line every year, and I can pick up $20,000 or $25,000 from these guys, well, I can’t go against ’em.”

Organizations like the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the West Virginia Business & Industry Council, the West Virginia Beverage Association, the West Virginia Broadcasters Association and the West Virginia Farm Bureau have been critical of its tax shift.

Justice said he would meet with those groups to try to talk through differences.

“I’ll call all those groups in and hope like crazy that we can get a general consensus of a path forward. And I’ll continue to meet with the House and the Senate and see if we can find a path forward,” he said.

“Once I see a path forward, I’ll call the session.”

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Pinkett shines as GW defends their MSAC championship

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senior guard Mason Pinkett scored 12 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter as George Washington pulled away from Huntington in the MSAC Championship game, 62-51 Saturday evening at South Charleston High School.

The Patriots used a 9-0 run midway through the fourth quarter to build a ten-point lead that they would not relinquish. Pinkett scored seven points during that decisive run.

“I am thinking that I am not trading benches”, said George Washington head coach Rick Greene on Pinkett’s play. “Alex (Yoakum) did a great job early for us. Ben (Nicol) in the third quarter, he got going offensively and scoring points, that takes a lot of pressure off our guards. I think they are the best backcourt in the state or as good as anybody.”

Huntington used an 8-0 first quarter run to take a 15-13 lead after the opening stanza. GW responded with an 11-0 second quarter run to take a four-point lead but the Highlanders scored the final seven points in the frame and led 27-24 at halftime.

A buzzer-beating three-pointer from Pinkett gave the Patriots a 43-41 lead at the end of three quarters. Huntington trailed 45-44 at the seven-minute mark before GW pulled away with their nine-point run.

Yoakum scored 17 points for the Patriots (10-1) while Taran Fitzpatrick added 10 points.

“If we can get 8-12 points out of those forwards, then we feel like that takes a lot of pressure off our guards.”

Jaylen Motley led Huntington (9-2) with 17 points while Amare Smith added a dozen.

Playing in their seventh MSAC final, George Washington completed a successful title defense after winning the title last winter.

“There’s two seasons. And in our minds, we just won the regular season. Obviously, that gives you confidence. I think it helps to play in this game no matter what, because this is the pressure for a championship. I think it will help and will build more momentum. I think conference championships are really important. It is really hard to win one. You have to be really consistent all year and you have to be ready to go on a certain night.”

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Delegates express gratitude for funding of veterans nursing home in Beckley

Delegates who represent Raleigh County expressed gratitude over the funding of a veterans nursing home.

Funds for the Beckley veteran’s nursing home were in the final budget bill and in supplemental appropriation approved earlier today. This fully funds the state’s portion required to begin building the nursing home.

Delegates Jeffrey Pack, Brandon Steele, Chris Toney, Republicans, and Mick Bates, a Democrat praised the financial commitment.

“We know all 134 legislators come to Charleston with goals for their districts, and we also know how limited our resources are year after year,” Pack stated in a release. “But after nine years, the Legislature has finally been able to allocate the money for a state nursing home dedicated specifically for veterans as authorized in 2012.

“The entire Raleigh delegation has worked tirelessly to capture the necessary funds to finally complete this project, and we are so grateful to our colleagues for helping us to make it happen for our state’s heroes to receive the best care possible.”

In 2012, the Legislature authorized building the facility located on the campus of Jackie Withrow Hospital in Beckley. This would be the second facility of its kind in West Virginia, with the other in Clarksburg.

The facility would serve veterans from all over southern West Virginia. Beckley was chosen as the site for the new location because of its proximity to the Beckley VA Hospital.

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Sponsor: As broadband bill passes, it was good but could have been better

The House of Delegates concurred with changes made to a broad-ranging broadband bill, but the lead sponsor expressed irritation.

“We’re going to move to concur,” said Delegate Daniel Linville, chairman of the House Technology & Infrastructure Committee. “But Mr. Speaker, I will not back down. I will not quit.”

The House of Delegates agreed with Senate changes and passed the bill 99-1 one final time, completing legislative action. The bill now goes to the governor.

Linville was peeved about a long gap in Senate consideration of the bill, which culminated with rejection of an amendment that would have established several funds to direct public investment.

Senator Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, had proposed an amendment establishing the funds aimed at financial improvements for broadband service. They would have been vessels to allocate future funding from the state or federal government.

Senators early on Friday voted in favor of the amendment. Then in the evening, they reconsidered and voted it t down.

Linville said complaints had arisen by internet companies who contended “open access” hadn’t been well-defined in the amendment. Debate on the Senate floor had focused on vaguely-described complaints from industry and had to do with private companies believing they could wind up competing against projects backed by public dollars.

“Simply by offering an amendment to lay the foundation for how dollars may be spent, the Senate garnered intense industry opposition,” said Linville, R-Cabell. “They think because we need this so desperately they can write the legislation.”

He also objected to reaching final passage of a priority broadband bill on the evening of Day 60.

“Mr. Speaker, we sent this bill over to the Senate on March the 5. That’s 40 days and 40 nights,” Linville said.

Broadband was a commonly-discussed priority leading into the legislative session. What resulted was one main bill, House Bill 2002, that has a variety of functions aimed at improving internet service.

Aspects of the bill are intended to expedite rights of way, produce a broadband availability map and compel high-speed internet providers to submit to greater legislative oversight. It also lays out some of the powers and responsibilities of the state Office of Broadband.

The bill lays out what it means to be unserved. It would require a broadband operator to credit subscribers for service interruptions of more than 24 hours.

“We’ve got a good bill but it could have been better,” Linville said. “I hope that fixing the damn internet will be the priority we all say it is.”

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Legislature passes budget on Day 60, with questions about higher ed funding

On the final day of the regular legislative session, lawmakers completed work on the budget bill.

The House of Delegates passed the budget bill on Friday evening. The Senate then followed suit this afternoon.

The bill trims millions of dollars from what Gov. Jim Justice first proposed, even though the governor and legislative leaders all agree state government is running a financial surplus of more than $200 million.

The budget passed by the Legislature appropriates $4.495 billion to the general fund.

Governor Justice earlier submitted a proposed $4.569 billion general fund budget that reflected his revenue estimate for the coming fiscal year. The Legislature, through bills passed, approved an additional $1.85 million in expenses that the governor hadn’t anticipated.

So it comes in $73 million below what the governor proposed.

Finance chairmen in both parties described the budget that passed as a compromise with the other chamber.

Democratic senators were concerned about 1.5 percent cuts to higher education institutions, including West Virginia and Marshall universities. They said the Senate should fight to restore that funding, either by going to conference committee or by holding off until a special session.

Eric Tarr

“I worked on defending the Senate’s position as much as I possibly could. Their cuts into higher education were much heavier than ours were,” said Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam.

Tarr went on to say that although higher education institutions are being cut up front, they are reflected in the surplus section of the budget. So if the current trend holds, half of any surplus at the end of this fiscal year goes to state reserves and then the remaining half would pay for prioritized items in the budget surplus section.

“So there’s no reason those items in the surplus section would not be paid,” Tarr said.

The original House budget did have larger cuts at first to WVU and Marshall, although there were no cuts to other higher education institutions. But the House had proposed all along to restore all the funding through surplus.

Throughout public discussions in the House, there was no apparent hunger to cut higher education. But early versions of the House budget, like the Senate budget, accounted for millions of dollars in a possible personal income tax cut.

That possibility was extinguished on Friday afternoon when delegates voted 0-100 against a tax plan the Senate had passed. Delegates didn’t like a shift that sharply raised sales taxes to offset cutting income taxes.

So the reason for leaving a $73 million gap remained confusing.

Mike Woelfel

“It seems like we have a little bit of a shell game going,” said Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell.

Woelfel pressed on that issue with Tarr contending that the House would be even harder on higher education.

“Why wouldn’t we take some of that $73 million and go fight with the House, regardless of their temperature and advocate for Marshall and West Virginia University to maintain their present level of funding in the general budget?” Woelfel asked.

“Here’s what I think you risk, senator,” Tarr responded. “I think their position would be a stronger cut just because we sent it back.”

Woelfel, who represents communities surrounding Marshall, replied, “For my district, I say let’s take the risk and if it fails then they can blame me.”

Robert Plymale

As Tarr continued to say the House of Delegates was responsible for the higher education cuts, Senator Robert Plymale asked for a reason.

“So what is their rationale for the cuts?” asked Plymale, D-Wayne.

Tarr replied, “My impression is that there is more of an emotional attachment to that than practical that we have here with regards to how we’re funding.

Referring to the 0-100 House vote on the tax plan, Tarr continued, “I think that is evident from what we saw on PIT.”

The House had a calm discussion about the budget on Friday evening with no delegates expressing any desire for further higher education cuts.

When the subject came up in the House, talks with the Senate were blamed.

Lisa Zukoff

“So could you tell me why we have to futher reduce Marshall and WVU’s budget if we have the surplus to do so?” asked Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall.

Eric Householder

“It’s a compromise,” responded House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley.

In response to later questions, Householder noted that WVU still receives $112 million from the state’s general fund and that Marshall receives $49 million.

Delegate Brent Boggs of Braxton County, the lead Democrat on the Finance Committee, commented that he was satisfied by the budget bill overall.

Brent Boggs

“I certainly support the motion. I said when I spoke on the budget when it left the house that I thought it was a good product,” Boggs said.

Referring to the Senate, he said, “I was more concerned about what was coming from the other end of the hallway. In the ensuing time that’s taken place, there was a lot of concern about how our position would hold. While I wish higher ed was not in the surplus section, I’m glad it’s only a small amount.”

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As Mountaineers search for tailback depth, Mathis praised for performance

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As West Virginia continues its search to build depth behind tailback Leddie Brown, Mountaineer coach Neal Brown sang the praises of sophomore Tony Mathis following Saturday’s practice.

“Some guys stood out today,” Brown said. “Tony Mathis had a really nice day offensively.”

The practice featured a contact scrimmage with Big 12 Conference officials, and Brown estimated the starting and second units each got in around 40 plays.

“Our first group with the offensive line ran the ball effectively versus our (No.) 1 defense,” Brown said. 

With top tailback Leddie Brown being held out of most full tackle events by design, the coaching staff has been afforded a closer look at both Mathis and A’Varius Sparrow.

Neither is being counted on to be the Mountaineers’ primary ball-carrier, but both have the opportunity to take on an expanded role.

Last season, Leddie Brown had 199 of West Virginia’s 358 rushing attempts and compiled all but 348 of the team’s 1,358 rushing yards. Of the remaining 159 carries, 78 went to Alec Sinkfield, who since transferred to Boston College.

Mathis, meanwhile, had 18 carries for 55 yards, while Sparrow finished with three rushes for 10 yards.

“It’s a definite backup position. The way we’re attacking this is we have two guys that have fifteen opportunities in the spring — Tony Mathis and A’Varius Sparrow,” Neal Brown said. “They’re competing and we have two more guys that are going to be true freshman that’ll be here in fall camp with the same opportunity. 

“You have to have at least three running backs ready to play,” he continued. “We were fortunate last year with Leddie, but we need help running the football. He can’t be the only guy carrying the load and we have to be more productive out of that second running back spot.”

The 5-foot-11, 206-pound Mathis has every chance to earn that spot.

“Mathis had a productive day and it’s been that way this whole week,” Brown said. “He is showing improvement and this football team needs him to keep coming.”

A’Varius Sparrow looks for running room during Saturday’s scrimmage. Photo by Greg Carey/

WASHINGTON MOVES TO LINEBACKER: West Virginia’s linebacker room got a new addition with redshirt freshman Devell Washington changing positions from wide receiver.

At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Washington will look to make an impact at will linebacker.

“Devell came to us, he wanted to try it,” Brown said. “From a body standpoint and an ability to help us, I think he can do it. He had an interception in the scrimmage today. He’s got good awareness and we really noticed that he had the attributes to play defense on special teams last fall. On our scout team on special teams, he did a really good job on kickoff, punt and punt return. 

“He came to us right as we were going into (last week’s) break and we made that decision coming out of the break to play him at will. He got a bunch of snaps today. Our numbers are low at that position.”

Brown added that Washington got more usage at will linebacker Saturday due to the absence of Exree Loe, who was out sick.

Washington already having a stature similar to other WVU linebackers could help the learning curve for someone who also played safety in high school.

“I think this will stick and he has real potential at that position, especially how we use the will playing outside the box so much,” Brown said. “If we were going to recruit a will linebacker, it would look just like Devell.”

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Cabell Midland rallies from 13 down to win MSAC title, 54-53 over GW

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Cabell Midland fought back from a huge second quarter deficit and withstood a 19-0 George Washington run to claim the Mountain State Athletic Conference Championship, 54-53 Saturday afternoon at South Charleston High School.

Jazmyn Wheeler netted the go-ahead layup with 20 seconds left and scored all of her team-best 14 points in the second half.

Midland scored the first six points of the game before the Patriots answered by scoring the next 19 points. Trailing 19-6 midway through the second quarter, the Knights trimmed the deficit to just six points at halftime, 29-23.

“Jaime (LaMaster) does a great job with them and they are a great team. We just had to go back to readjust our defense,” said Cabell Midland head coach Matt Adkins. “I think they came out, played hard and smacked us in the mouth. We kind of backed off. We had to settle them down. Once we settled down, I think we were okay.”

The Knights (10-2) scored the first ten points in the third quarter to take a 33-29 lead. Midland led 43-39 going into the fourth quarter.

In the final stanza, a three-point play from Kalissa Lacy gave GW a 45-43 lead. The teams exchanged the lead twice before Wheeler’s decisive layup.

Sophi Aldridge scored a dozen points for the Knights while KK Potter added 10 points.

Lacy, Finley Lohan and Alaria Evans all scored 15 points to lead the Patriots (11-3).

“They didn’t have any quit in them and that’s what we liked. There were a couple times they could have folded. And they didn’t,” Adkins said.

“Two of the top three teams in the state played here today and it was a big win for us.”

In the third place game, Huntington defeated Capital, 70-46.

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