By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
BERRYVILLE -- Clarke County lost back-to-back games entering this week's regional tournament, including a defeat in the district semifinals last week. The extra time off gave the Eagles plenty of time to work on their game, and on Tuesday night it all paid off.
Clarke County came out like a ball of fire, using a strong first quarter to build a big lead. The Eagles held off a furious Central rally on their way to a 66-60 win in the Region B, Division 2 quarterfinals. Clarke County will play Buckingham County on Thursday at Cumberland in the semifinals.
"I think we had lost focus as a team," Clarke County senior Jeremy Rhoads said of the Eagles' play the last few weeks. "We slacked off in practice -- I hate to say it, but we did. I think the second loss hit us pretty hard and we knew we had to turn it around."
Clarke County's pressure defense gave Central fits early in the game and the Eagles were able to build a 20-9 lead after the first quarter. The Eagles went 2-for-8 from the free-throw line in the quarter or the lead could have been even bigger.
"That's something we'll have to fix," Clarke County coach Brent Emmart said. "We can't be missing foul shots and layups. If we would've made our layups and foul shots we could've been up by 20."
The Eagles (14-7) were able to stretch their lead to as much as 15 early in the second quarter. Clarke County found itself in a little bit of foul trouble, as five players had picked up at least two fouls each midway through the second quarter.
The Falcons took advantage by attacking the basket to climb back in the game. Central went on an 8-0 run, including four points each by Aaron Heishman and Seth Bauserman on drives to the basket.
"We knew they had some foul trouble, so I wanted to get to the free-throw line," Heishman said. "Things just weren't clicking for us at first. We just couldn't get in the flow. This is a tough place to play. The place was packed."
Central (13-6) kept the momentum going in the third quarter. Heishman and Kyle Willis hit back-to-back 3-pointers to help the Falcons cut the lead to six early in the third quarter.
The two teams traded baskets until the Falcons used an 8-0 run to take their first lead of the game. Heishman and Willis hit back-to-back 3-pointers again and Heishman closed the run with two free throws for a 47-46 lead with 2:34 left in the quarter.
"Central's a great team and I have a lot of respect for their program," Emmart said. "We knew they were going to make a run at us. We knew they weren't going to lay down. They fought hard."
The two teams were tied at 52-52 at the end of the third quarter. Sam Shiley hit a driving runner in the lane and a 3-pointer to put Clarke County up for good, 58-54, with 6:03 left in the game. A basket by Central's Michael Marston cut the lead to two, but the Eagles answered with a shot by William Parker. Central's Matt Sherfey nailed a 3-pointer with 5:04 left to cut the lead to 60-59.
Grant Shaw's jumper extended the lead back to three, and after two missed free throws by Marston, the Eagles slowed the game down. Clarke County used up more than a minute on the clock, waiting for the right time to take a shot. Clarke County's Jordan Shepherd was able to get free under the basket and made an easy layup for a 64-59 lead with 52 seconds left in the game.
"I thought that was the big play of the game," Emmart said. "We were also able to set up into our 1-2-2 zone."
Heishman made one of two free throws with 31 seconds left, and the Falcons were able to get a turnover on Clarke County's next possession. However, Sherfey missed a 3-pointer and Bauserman missed a jumper leading to a fast-break layup by Shaw to seal the win.
The Eagles have a deep bench, and Rhoads said he felt that made a big difference at the end.
"We knew coming in that they only went eight deep, and the three guys that come off the bench don't score but maybe six points a game," Rhoads said. "We felt like if we could get them running that their legs would die at the end more than ours."
Heishman led the Falcons with 23 points. Marston had 13 and Bauserman added 10.
"I told the kids after the game that Clarke was champions, but you're also champions," Central coach Roger Wilkins said. "We lost tonight, but they played hard and fought hard.
"I just feel bad for our seniors. They're responsible for the turnaround of this program. We got to play in a regional game. That was a goal for them. Hopefully the goal for next year's team will be to go even further in regionals."
Shiley and Shaw each had 13 points to lead the Eagles, while Rhoads added 11 and Rondell Anderson had 10. The Eagles are now one win away from a state berth, their first since winning back-to-back state titles in 2006 and 2007.
"It would be pretty exciting if we could get back to states," Rhoads said. "My brother led the team to back-to-back state titles and was in the stands. It was a great environment. It would be a lot of fun just to be able to be there."