By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
FALLS CHURCH -- Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School was lit ablaze Friday night.
Neither Strasburg nor George Mason, as far as qualifying for the Region B tournament was concerned, necessarily needed to win the Bull Run District championship game, as both teams have already guaranteed themselves No. 4 and No. 1 seeds, respectively.
But it never hurts a team's confidence to parade that tournament trophy around center court.
Which is why every basket scored fed the blaze like kindling. Every bump in the paint sent both fan and flames booming. And every turnover was a maddening squirt of lighter fluid, spreading the flames to places they otherwise couldn't have reached.
Because, in the end, it was turnovers that doomed the Rams to their 45-37 loss to the Mustangs.
"What I'm really proud of is that it was a physical game and we really did not back down and we went out there and competed well," Strasburg coach Joel Morgan said. "In the second half there we just needed a couple shots to fall and take away a few turnovers, but I'm proud of our kids.
"I told them in [the locker room] that it gets bigger next week."
Strasburg committed 23 turnovers all game, only seven of which came in the first half. And for the most part, those late turnovers were preventable. A handful came off ill-advised long passes which might have worked against a slower and shorter team than George Mason. Another few resulted from silly passes sent awry, not because of a prevalence of defensive pressure, but because of a lack of communication and concentration.
Otherwise, when the Rams managed to settle down into their half-court offense, spread the ball around, and force the Mustangs' defense to work back and forth enough to exploit matchups, Strasburg was quite successful offensively.
And Strasburg certainly had a couple of favorable matchups.
When she was on her game, Strasburg senior Jenna Smoot proved too strong for George Mason's smaller forwards, and too wily for the larger ones. She scored nine points.
And senior Jaclyn Ayers, so adept at scoring off turnovers or popping out of the paint for long jumpers, proved time and again she was one of the best players on the court. She scored a team-high 14 points.
But it was perhaps Strasburg's more subtle players who kept the Rams in the game through all four quarters.
Seniors Gabe Giersch and Stephanie Conde, ever-capable defensive players, scored seven and five points, respectively. Giersch hit a deep 3-pointer early in the first quarter to tie the game at 5-5, and hit two wide-open layups in the second quarter to keep Strasburg within striking distance.
"We played tough and we hung with them really well and we know that we're gonna get a chance to face them again," Giersch said. "So yeah, you always want to win the district tournament but sometimes you win some, you lose some.
"We played really hard, we played the way we wanted to, and the way we should have, so it's a good thing for us that we could get back out there and play really well."
Conde came back from an early elbow to the head, which left a dark, purple bruise by her left temple, to give Strasburg a 25-24 lead early in the third quarter, and a 28-26 lead midway through the same quarter.
"Coach [Morgan] told us in the beginning of the game that we needed to step up and make our shots," Conde said. "Coach Morgan's always telling us that we gotta step up, and after every game you're playing better teams and better teams, and it's getting to be more important, so you really gotta step up your game."
But after Conde's final score, George Mason went on a 10-0 run to close out the third period. Both teams scored nine in the final quarter, and so no ground was made up.
Following the game, Smoot and Ayers were awarded first team all-district honors. Kasey Canterbury of Clarke County was named to the second team.
Strasburg will host fifth-seeded Chatham on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Region B, Division 2 quarterfinals.