By Dennis Atwood - email@example.com
STRASBURG -- The Central Falcons pulled off a monumental, improbable, 47-45 upset of the undefeated Strasburg Rams on their home court Saturday afternoon in non-district girls basketball action.
On paper, the Falcons, with a 5-7 record, and having lost five of their six previous games, appeared to be the next likely victim of The Associated Press' No. 1-ranked Group A squad.
The Rams embarrassed Central 51-27 on Jan. 8, and demolished Manassas Park 62-24 on Tuesday night.
Turnover problems (25 to Central's 15) plagued the Rams, who led 26-20 at halftime. Central out-scored Strasburg 10-6 in the third quarter and 17-13 in the fourth.
"Obviously, winning is great, against a very good team," Falcons coach Stephanie Mathews said. "And we took much better care of the basketball than they did. For me, the thing we did best today was our defense. I felt we really got after it on the defensive end and did what we were supposed to do. We really played as a team on both ends today."
Central senior Brea Hinegardner's four first-half field goals (10 points, 4 steals, 4 rebounds) helped keep Central within striking distance of the Rams.
"[Turnovers] are what we've been working on really hard," Hinegardner said. "The last couple of games we've been having over 20 turnovers, so this is a huge turning point."
Central's diminutive (5-foot-3) junior point guard Ashley Jernigan (game-high 14 points) had a quiet first half, scoring only two free throws, but came up big with 12 second-half points, including conventional and beyond-the-arc 3-pointers to lead the Falcons' late surge.
"[The Rams] had seven fouls in the first half and we didn't attack as much as we should have. So I just figured in the second half we'd attack it, so we'd get the fouls and that helped us," Jernigan said. "[The win] showed that we can stick with any team and beat them."
After Central's Jensen Hoover sank a field goal to open the contest, seniors Stephanie Conde (team-high nine points) and Jaclyn Ayers (eight points, five steals) each scored two field goals to put the Rams up 8-2.
Except for a 30-30 tie at 1:50 in the third quarter, the Rams maintained a single-digit lead, peaking at 25-16 at 2:18 in the second quarter, and went up 43-36 on Gabe Giersch's 3-pointer from the right baseline, with 4 minutes on the game clock.
The Falcons then went on a 9-0 run, sparked by Jernigan with a conventional three-pointer, and a beyond-the-arc bucket at 1:33, to give Central its first lead since the opening bucket, 45-43.
Conde then tied it for the Rams with a field goal with 1:25 left.
After the teams traded ballhandling violations, Smoot's (8 points) field goal attempt went in and out of the bucket and Hinegardner fed an assist at the left side of the lane to junior Taylor Pumphrey (five second half points), who made a short-range field goal with seven seconds left to put the Falcons up 47-45.
On the next Rams' possession Ayers fouled out with 2.8 seconds left on a charging call, but Jernigan missed both free throws.
On the Rams' next trip, the ball went out of bounds over the Strasburg end-line. The Rams were initially awarded possession, but a referee over-rule gave the ball to the Falcons, who held the in-bounds pass as time expired.
The Rams lost despite shooting 50 percent or better, both from the field (18-for-36) and at the foul line (6-for-10), and sinking three shots from beyond the arc, to Central's one.
Central shot 46.5 percent from the field, but a woeful 33 percent (6-for-18) from the charity stripe.
The Falcons' faces were barely wide enough to contain their grins after the game.
"We came out playing hard, with intensity from the get-go, the whole game. I'm so happy we played as a team, I don't know what to say -- I'm speechless," Jernigan said.
"We didn't play good enough, that's the bottom line," Rams coach Joel Morgan said. "We turned the ball over too much, had some foul trouble, they took advantage of it, and we didn't do enough to win.
"We have to understand that the sun will come up, and we have to back to work and get ready for the next opponent [Madison County on Wednesday]. I think our kids will bounce back."