By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
NOKESVILLE -- Marty Haley didn't want to leave the court.
The final buzzer had sounded, but the Warren County senior refused to leave. His team's season was finished, thanks to a 56-47 defeat at the hands of Kettle Run. But as his teammates ushered him off the court for the final time, his emotions let loose. The tears began to roll down his cheeks, partly for the loss in Tuesday's regional quarterfinals, but mostly for the realization that he'd never play with this team again, and his high school basketball career had come to a close.
"I told [my team], 'I'm not getting off. They're going to have to pull me off,'" Haley said after the game. "And they got me and I just busted out crying. All of the seniors just busted out crying. It's our last game playing with each other. I mean, I loved it being the last game and senior night as a regional game, not a regular-season game. We fought through everything. The season wasn't that good, but we came through when we needed to."
It was an emotional year for the Wildcats, particularly for the nine seniors whose season came to an end Tuesday night. Despite the tears that were shed, Warren County realized it was fortunate to make it this far. After limping through the regular season, the Wildcats upset No. 1 seeded Fauquier in the district tournament to qualify for the regional tournament, and early on it looked as if their Cinderella season would continue.
Both offenses started out slow, only reaching double digits within the final minute of the first quarter. Logan Hibbs had five points for the Wildcats, while Kettle Run's Spencer Carter added four of his own to help give the Cougars a one-point lead heading into the second quarter. Warren County battled back, however, scoring on back-to-back possessions to grab a 20-18 lead with three minutes left in the first half and made it to halftime with only a three-point deficit.
The Wildcats were keeping it close, but as the second half got under way, Kettle Run quickly took the wind out of the visiting team's sails. The Cougars opened up the quarter on a 6-0 run, thanks to four points from Jimmy Hargro, putting Kettle Run ahead, 31-22. That mini-run by the home team seemed to rattle the Wildcats, who even after a timeout weren't able to recover from the early blow.
"The key tonight, I was telling our guys, was we just needed to stay close," Wildcats coach Vernon Mathews said. "I thought we stayed close in the first half, and the other key was to come out in the third quarter and not fall farther behind, but they came out with the intensity. You have to give them credit. They came out with intensity, and they went to the basket well and they're a well-coached team."
Things got worse for Warren County early in the fourth quarter, as the deficit reached a game-high 17 points on a slam dunk by Hargro, sending the home crowd into a frenzy while essentially sealing the game for the Cougars. Despite the huge hole, however, Warren County didn't give up and closed out the game on a 14-5 run to finish within single digits.
It was a sign Mathews said he had coached his kids right, and that despite the troubles the team had gone through, they always knew to keep fighting.
"That's the first step in any pyramid is to never quit," Mathews said. "We didn't always make some shots we should've made or box out, or we'd commit a bunch of turnovers we should've have, but the one thing I told these guys was you never quit and they didn't."
That mentality was sure instilled in Haley. The senior finished the game with seven points, and despite the tears that escaped him after that final buzzer, he knew his team had made it farther than anyone would've guessed.
"We really didn't think we were going to go this far," Haley said. "People doubted us, Virginia Preps doubted us but we fought through it, all of the nonsense, and we just played together.
"This isn't a team where you have No. 1 draft picks. This is a team where they're going to bust their butts to get to this position and that's what we did."