By Jeremy Stafford - email@example.com
FALLS CHURCH -- All the Strasburg Rams could feel was relief.
Relief that they had beaten Madison County and secured a spot in today's Bull Run District girls basketball tournament final; relief that their final score of 40-25 wasn't too indicative of their rustiness on Thursday night.
And they must have felt relieved that, after having their regular season cut one game short because of inclement weather, they finally got their senior night.
Strasburg seniors Jenna Smoot, Jaclyn Ayers, Stephanie Conde, Gabe Giersch, Jennifer Jackson and Ally Kauffman all lined up at center court at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School with their parents, flowers and the seniors of the other three Bull Run teams competing in the semifinal round.
It was an odd and unique experience, to be sure, but it was hardly forgettable.
"It was a little different, a little unconventional -- but because of our season ending, I think our district did their best to get us some kind of senior night because no team out there had one," Smoot said. "I think it was a cool experience, it's definitely going to be memorable to get to share it with three other teams, but it's just one of those things you wish you could do at home so you're in front of your home crowd."
But then, what wasn't odd about Thursday night? With neither team having played a game of any kind for about two weeks, much less a playoff game, baskets became a rarity while turnovers were commonplace.
By halftime, the combined turnovers for both teams (17) nearly equaled their total points (21). The first basket of the game wasn't scored until the 4:11 mark in the first quarter, when Conde hit a short jumper. Madison didn't score its first point until 12:44 had passed.
"I think we were a little bit rusty," Giersch said. "We've been practicing, but it's a completely different atmosphere when you have to go on the road and get out there after you haven't played a game for two weeks.
"It was definitely a rough time."
Strasburg coach Joel Morgan said he'd hoped the Rams, having not played for so long, would come out "like a ball of fire." Instead, the fire had to wait until halftime, when he told Strasburg to keep up its defensive intensity.
And boy, did they keep it up.
After the Mountaineers committed only seven turnovers in the first half, Strasburg forced Madison County into 10 turnovers in the third quarter alone. Many of those turnovers resulted in transition buckets for Strasburg, and with the Rams' offense falling short of its capability, the increased defensive pressure couldn't have been more timely.
"Thank gosh for our defense because I don't know what else we would have done," Smoot said.
And as the defense strangled Madison County, Ayers caught fire, or at least what passed for fire Thursday night. The senior scored two baskets and converted a free throw in the third quarter en route to her game-high 15-point performance.
Ayers said she "kind of" felt a personal responsibility to shoulder the scoring when no one else's shots were falling. And she was sure to point out that her scoring was only the beginning of a team-wide blossoming.
"Once we got out of that slump, Jenna started contributing -- Stephanie, Jennifer -- we started opening up a little bit," Ayers said. "We just never got to our potential."
Smoot scored eight for the Rams, while Conde added six and Jackson scored five. Strasburg will play George Mason tonight in the district final. The Mustangs handed the Rams their second loss of the season in the teams' only meeting. That game, too, came only after snow forced it to be postponed twice.
"I feel good we got a win," Morgan said. "[It's] good to get back out and compete against somebody else, and hopefully this will get us ready for tomorrow night.
"I think right now a lot of teams are a little bit rusty -- I think everybody is kind of in the same boat right now."