By Ben Brooks - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL - Damien Caison wasn't his team's first option to take the game-winning shot. But the Warren County High School junior turned out to be the Wildcats' best bet.
Caison, saddled for much of Wednesday night's game with foul trouble and admittedly in an early-season shooting slump, drilled a 16-foot jumper with just under one second left to lift the Wildcats to a 57-56 nondistrict boys basketball victory over Luray.
"Through the first five games I was probably shooting like 10 percent," said Caison, who finished with 10 points on Wednesday, one of four Wildcats in double figures. "It's just overwhelming to come back and hit a couple of shots in a close game like this. The coaches kept telling me to keep my head up."
The Wildcats (2-4) led throughout the fourth quarter until Luray's Josh McKenzie stuck back his own missed shot to put the Bulldogs (3-3) on top 56-55 with nine seconds remaining.
Following a timeout, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Caison inbounded the ball to Logan Hibbs. As Hibbs dribbled into the frontcourt and headed for the lane, he drew a double team and was forced to pick up his dribble. Caison came behind Hibbs, took the handoff just outside the right elbow, and hit a line-drive shot to send the Wildcats' faithful into a frenzy.
"It was a huge shot," said Wildcats coach Vernon Mathews, whose team snapped a three-game slide. "We always tell our kids if your man leaves you, look for the ball."
Luray, which last week handled the Wildcats with relative ease (66-43), had eight-tenths of a second left, but could not get off a length-of-the-court shot off before the buzzer.
Warren County, which held one-point leads after the first and third quarters, had a chance to pull away late, but the Wildcats made just 2-of-6 free throws over the final 35 seconds. That left the door open for McKenzie, who scored a game-high 25 points, mostly on offensive rebounds or passes down low.
Mathews said the biggest difference in his team's play Wednesday compared to the 23-point loss at Luray earlier this season was defensive pressure. Warren County used a smaller and quicker lineup. The Bulldogs committed 27 turnovers, some forced and some not.
"They took advantage of them," Luray coach Jim Sanders said. "I'd take them, too, if somebody gave them to me."
Jon Roof led all Wildcats with 14 points. Dakota Pratscher came off the bench to add 12, and Marty Haley chipped in with 10.
Pratscher was a huge factor in the third quarter. The sophomore replaced Caison when he picked up his fourth foul in the first 13 seconds of the third quarter. Pratscher scored seven of his points in the period, helping the Wildcats erase Luray's 33-26 advantage.
"He's got a great attitude," Mathews said. "He's not afraid to come in and take shots."
The Bulldogs and Wildcats could conceivably play for a third time in less than two weeks. Both will participate in the upcoming Daily Classic boys basketball tournament.