By Robert Edmonds - firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK - Strasburg traveled to Central on Saturday night for a Shenandoah County rivalry matchup that had team supporters feeling like they were watching a playoff showdown.
Beginning with the player introductions, the noise inside the Falcons' gymnasium was deafening. A raucous crowd cheered and supported their respective teams as the game got off to a quick start.
"This was a heck of a game," Falcons coach Roger Wilkins said. "This is what a rivalry is all about. It was a great atmosphere and we had a great crowd for both teams. Strasburg really played well tonight."
The pace rarely slowed as both teams battled up and down the court. The Falcons jumped ahead to an early lead as they capitalized on the Rams' mistakes before having to hold off a Strasburg rally in a 63-51 win.
"The difference in tonight's game was our inability to come through at the free-throw line," Rams coach Millson French said. "That, along with our offense rushing and shooting too fast especially in the first half. We were getting poor shots that were being challenged and we forced ourselves to play defense."
Central jumped out to an early 7-0 lead capitalizing on a pair of mistakes by the Rams, who twice were called for five-second violations on inbound passes. Both teams used a three-quarter-court press early to force their opponents to make quick decisions as they tried to move the ball up the court.
Both teams seemed rattled early, as they committed costly turnovers and forced quick shots which ended with less than great results. Leading 13-7 at the end of the first, Central seemed to find their footing in the second.
With leader Aaron Heishman in foul trouble, Central needed someone to respond. The Falcons found just what they were looking for in Kyle Willis. Willis emerged from the bench and connected on his second 3-pointer to begin the scoring in the second quarter.
"I've been off a little so far this year," Willis said. "When Aaron [Heishman] went out, I realized someone needed to step up for us. I told myself to just work hard and I was able to make some shots. They were doubling down on Marston and he was able to kick it back to me for some open shots. This was my best game so far."
The shot began an 11-4 run for the Falcons that shifted the momentum quickly. Michael Marston scored six points in the run. After a putback score off an offensive rebound, Marston forced a steal near mid-court, then drove to the basket, delivering a monster slam that sent the Falcon faithful into a frenzy.
"Marston's dunk was like an explosion," Wilkins said. "That dunk really got the crowd into the game and swung the momentum. His performance and Kyle's play off the bench really kept us in the game in the first half."
Following the dunk, Willis continued his impressive performance, adding five more points in the quarter, including another 3-pointer that gave Central a double-digit lead at the half, 29-19.
Pleased that his team performed as well as they did while he sat on the bench, Heishman found some comfort during the first half, but wanted to contribute as play resumed after the break.
"[Aaron] knew when he got the second foul he wasn't going to be playing for a while," Wilkins said. "I didn't have to say much, I just gave him a look and told him he would be sitting for a while. We talked at the half about him pulling up when he needed to instead of always driving and he came out in the second half and was phenomenal."
The senior guard wasted little time doing just that when he took the court. Heishman scored the first four points of the half and nine in the third quarter. Willis added another 3-pointer, allowing the Falcons to expand their lead to 16 at their highest point.
"I was frustrated and embarrassed in the first half," Heishman said. "I was making plays that weren't smart, but the team really picked me up. Kyle [Willis] and Marston carried us in the first half. I felt really bad because I let coach Wilkins down and that really motivated me to come out and play better in the second half."
Strasburg battled back fiercely behind Bub McKelvey and Brian Huttner in the fourth as they began to find the baskets inside the paint for easy scores. With time running out and the Rams looking to get to within single digits, Strasburg was forced to foul in order to give themselves an opportunity.
Unfortunately for the Rams, Central was up to the task at the charity stripe. The team connected on 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch. Heishman connected on eight from the line to notch a game-high 22 points -- all during the second half -- and complete the victory.
"They got after us tonight and they got us out of position," French said. "Brian [Huttner] played well for us. He has been the most consistent this season, but the team turnovers were too much."