By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Senior Taylor Loudan had a message for his Sherando teammates before the start of the second half of Tuesday's Northwestern District showdown with Handley.
"I got everybody together before that third quarter and I said we're going have to start rebounding better, we're going to have to start playing better defense, we're going to have to play with more energy than them," Loudan said.
His teammates listened.
Trailing by two points at halftime in a game that would put the winner in the driver's seat in the regular-season district race, Sherando came out in the third period with more focus and energy than its Handley counterpart.
The Warriors used a lopsided third quarter en route to a 75-60 win over the reigning district champions. Sherando has now won eight consecutive games, including four straight in the district. The Warriors are now alone in first place in the Northwestern.
"It was a big win. The main thing we try to do is focus on each quarter," Sherando coach Garland Williams said. "I thought we played, for the most part, a good sound defensive game.
"I'm very happy as far as the things that we're doing."
Handley (12-3, 2-1 Northwestern) opened the second half holding a 29-27 advantage, but Sherando rebounded nicely from a first half in which they shot just 27.5 percent from the floor with a more consistent effort in the third period. Sherando ended the day shooting 28 for 68 (41.2 percent) from the floor.
The Warriors (10-4, 4-0) hit five of their first seven shots in the third quarter, and a deep 3-pointer from the left wing by senior Tanner Ruths capped a 14-6 run that gave Sherando a 41-35 lead with 4:33 left in the period.
Ruths knocked down another 3-pointer just a minute later to extend Sherando's lead to 46-37.
"We were patient and we swung the ball around a couple times," Williams said. "I think Tanner Ruth's back-to-back 3's helped spread things open for us a little bit."
Sherando's defense played a large part in the offensive outburst for the Warriors, as they forced Handley into eight turnovers in the third period. The Warriors were able to convert many of those turnovers to points on the other end.
The fast-break opportunities -- a phase that Sherando has thrived on all season -- helped negate the size advantage that the Judges held.
Loudan said the Warriors didn't change much defensively in the second half, but the energy level of Sherando is what played the difference in the third period. The Warriors benefited from a rowdy student section all night, and Sherando also got a boost when senior Demontay Harrison -- who sat out the first half after missing practice due to illness -- entered the game with 5:36 left in the third quarter.
Harrison, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Texas, immediately picked up a block in the paint, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
"We love our crowd support that we have, but we stayed focus and we stayed the course ... we just kind of rolled with it and responded to adversity," Loudan, who led all scorers with 20 points, said. "When we're playing with more energy that's going to affect the other team, and we took advantage of it."
Sherando took a 53-43 lead into the fourth period and used an 8-3 run to extend the lead to 61-46 with 5:25 to play.
The Warriors took their largest lead of the night when Loudan used a spin move on the low block and laid the ball in to make the lead 69-51 with 2:38 remaining.
"They played harder than we did, it's that simple," Judges coach Tommy Dixon said. "They were organized, we weren't. They wanted the game more than we did."
The game was very low scoring in the opening half as neither team had much success knocking down jumpers.
Handley's 6-foot-8 forward Cameron Jackson proved to be a menace in the paint against Sherando's offense, as he recorded seven of Handley's 10 blocks.
Sherando led for most of the first two periods before Jackson's putback with 2:50 to play in the second quarter gave the Judges a 24-22 lead, their first of the game.
Jackson led Handley with 17 points, and Jacob Rudolph and Buster Wigley added 10 points apiece for the Judges. Handley shot 26 for 68 (38.2 percent) from the floor.
Three Warriors joined Loudan in double figures, with Ruths (14), Aaron Miller (14) and Isaiah Williams (12) leading the offensive charge.
Sherando gets a break from district competition for a while before hosting James Wood on Jan. 25, but Tuesday's win gives the Warriors plenty of momentum heading into the second half of the district slate.
"This is a huge win for us," Loudan said. "Fourth win in the district, it's sets us in the driver's seat for the district. We've just got to keep pushing and keep practicing hard."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org