By Brad Fauber
QUICKSBURG -- Stonewall Jackson took the first big step in its rebuilding process on Monday night against visiting Eastern Mennonite.
The Generals held off a second-half comeback attempt by the Flames, holding on for a 56-49 win for their first victory of the young season. The win was also the first at the varsity level for new head coach Patrick Smoot.
"Winning is always better than losing, I will say that," Smoot said. "We did things well, and we did things poorly. But you can't win two before you win the first one, that's what we tell the kids.
"They've got to learn from this. They haven't been in many situations like this, and it was ugly at times, but they fought through and they did great things."
Stonewall Jackson (1-3) found itself in very unfamiliar territory, holding a comfortable 32-16 lead at the half. But the Generals found out quickly that no lead is safe, and the Flames (1-5) slowly chipped away at the deficit in the final two periods.
"It's a learning experience that once we get those leads we need to keep doing what we we're doing to get those leads in the first place," Generals senior guard Matt Litten said. "We need to not back off, just go harder than we were in the first half."
Stonewall Jackson jumped out the large first-half lead behind a steady shooting effort from the floor, hitting 13 of 26 (50 percent) shots. But the Generals lost that rhythm in the second half, as Eastern Mennonite went to a full-court zone press that forced Stonewall Jackson to speed up its offense and throw up some poor shots.
The Generals went nearly three minutes without a field goal in the third period before junior forward Hunter Smootz hit a bucket in the paint with 5:15 left in the frame. Sophomore Ryan Smith immediately followed with a 3-pointer to give Stonewall Jackson its largest lead of the night at 38-21.
But Eastern Mennonite countered with a 10-0 run over the next three minutes to cut the deficit to just seven points. Flames guard Aaron Bergman (game-high 23 points) started the run with a 3-pointer from the right wing, and a pair of free throws by Daniel Nyce made the score 38-31 with 1:10 to play in the third.
Generals junior point guard Colton Harlow finally stopped the scoring drought with a 3-pointer, and Stonewall Jackson carried a 41-31 lead into the final period. The Generals shot just 23.1 percent (6 for 26) in the second half, and finished the game with a 19-for-52 (36.5 percent) mark from the field.
"They had a really good press and we just got a little crazy with the ball," said Harlow, who led the Generals with 20 points. "I think we just wanted to get that game over with and win, so we were just playing really sloppy basketball."
The Generals' 10-point lead quickly disappeared in the fourth period as Eastern Mennonite went on an 8-0 run, fueled by a pair of 3-pointers by Bergman, to cut Stonewall Jackson's lead to 43-41 with 4:30 left to play.
But Litten, one of just two Stonewall Jackson seniors, came up big on offense in the final three minutes of the game after struggling for most of the first three periods. The 6-foot-1 guard scored seven straight points for the Generals over a two-minute stretch, including a pair of clutch free throws to give his team a 50-43 lead with 1:04 remaining.
"I just wanted to try to get our focus back on everything we can," Litten said. "I'm just going to try to do everything I can within myself to try and show everybody that we're capable of doing what we can do."
Stonewall Jackson used solid free throw shooting to keep the lead from slipping away, hitting 9 of 10 from the line over the final three minutes. The Generals shot 14 for 18 from the free-throw line for the game, compared to a 16-for-21 mark by the Flames.
Stonewall Jackson's defense played well on Monday, especially in the first half as the Generals held Eastern Mennonite to just five field goals in the first two periods. The Flames shot 14 of 44 (31.8 percent) for the game.
The Generals are right back at it tonight as they host Shenandoah District foe East Rockingham, and Monday's win certainly gives Stonewall Jackson confidence as it begins to make strides in the right direction.
"For us to beat a well-coached basketball team is a great step for us," Smoot said. "Our guys pushed and they fought back, and our guys had to fight through some adversity. That's a big step for us to start turning this thing around.
"It may be baby steps, but we're going in the right direction."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org