By Tommy Keeler Jr.
FRONT ROYAL -- Early in the season, Millbrook's bench players struggled with their roles on the team. As the season has went on, the bench has improved and that was on display Friday night against Skyline.
The Pioneers' bench gave the team a spark and helped lead them to a 53-43 Northwestern District win over the Hawks.
"Our subs made us better when they came on the floor tonight, and that's what they've got to do," Millbrook coach Scott Mankins said. "A lot of people struggled with their roles early on. Now they're getting comfortable, so hopefully it's at the right time."
Millbrook's R.J. Russell was a perfect example of the improved bench play. Mankins said he was disappointed with a play Russell made at the end of the first half, and let him know about it and the senior guard responded.
Russell scored nine points in the third quarter to help the Pioneers build a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"If I got on him earlier in the season, he would've been finished for the rest of the night," Mankins said. "But he put it behind him. He came back in and was a big spark for us in the third quarter.
"He had a great game because he did his job. Earlier in the year he was trying to do too much -- in a good way -- to help the team. But he finally understands what his role is. He's playing his role better now."
The Pioneers (9-7, 2-2 Northwestern) led 25-23 at the half, but baskets by Skyline's Nick Helmick and Casey Stewart gave Skyline a 27-25 edge with 7:01 left in the third quarter.
Millbrook went on a 15-4 run to take a 40-31 lead with 2:03 left in the third quarter. Russell had seven of his nine points during the run.
Millbrook point guard and leading scorer Rze Culbreath had only two points during the third quarter, but set up many of his teammates for easy baskets.
"Culbreath's a heck of a player," Skyline coach Jacob Bates said. "We had trouble containing him. The other guards do a good job bailing them out when you do stop him."
A 3-pointer by Millbrook's Zach Harrell and another basket by Russell gave the Pioneers an 11-point lead heading into the final quarter. Skyline would get no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Skyline (12-4, 1-3) had 26 turnovers and gave up a lot of layups in the loss.
"We knew Millbrook was a good team and we'd like to think that we're a good team," Bates said. "We knew coming into this game that whoever gave up the most easy buckets was going to lose. And unfortunately that was us."
Things started out great for the Hawks. Skyline's Kylmen Breeden hit two 3-pointers and Dayvon Haight hit one trey to help give the Hawks a 13-4 lead just four minutes into the game. However, Millbrook was able to effectively limit the touches of both Skyline guards for the remainder of the game with their defensive pressure.
"That's a credit to Millbrook's defense," Bates said. "They're trapping on the wings and they're pressing. They're forcing you to throw over top to your bigs. And a lot of those passes for us weren't good passes. They were errant passes. A lot of the 26, 27 turnovers were a lot of those passes."
The Pioneers used a 14-4 run to take their first lead of the game, 18-16, with 5:11 left in the first half.
Skyline was led by Stewart with 13 points, while Marcus Turner added 11. Culbreath had 20 points, while Eddie Trexler added 10.
Millbrook had lost five of its last six games, so Mankins was very happy to see his team get back on track.
"It's huge," Mankins said. "A road win in the district to even us up at 2-2. It's very, very big right now."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org