By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- Central's boys basketball team puts a heavy emphasis on making free throws every day in practice -- if the Falcons actually get some practice time in.
The Falcons had just one practice since last Friday's loss to Stonewall Jackson due to the recent snow storm and back-to-back games in the middle of this week, but Central's lack of gym time certainly didn't show in Thursday's Bull Run District battle with visiting George Mason.
Central knocked down key free throws late in the game, turning a two-point, fourth-quarter lead into a 64-54 win over the Mustangs.
The Falcons (2-1, 2-0 Bull Run) nailed 10 of 12 free throws in the final period, and finished with a 24-for-30 (80 percent) mark from the free-throw line in the win.
"It's something we practice and practice every day. It's something that we concentrate on -- just hit your free throws," said Central senior forward Zach Herbaugh, who was one of two Falcons, including teammate Ricky Neff, to go 4-for-4 from the line in the fourth period. "They're easy points. It's something you don't want to miss, because it counts in the fourth quarter."
Central, which led for the majority of Thursday's contest, found itself clinging to a 41-39 lead to start the fourth quarter, and quickly extended that lead to eight points following a 3-pointer by freshman Austin Fadely and a traditional three-point play by Herbaugh.
But George Mason (2-1, 2-1) quickly erased that deficit, taking a 50-47 lead on a 3-pointer by D'Montae Noble. Mustangs sophomore guard Elliot Mercado (game-high 27 points, 6 steals) keyed the run by scoring three straight layups in transition, and Falcons coach Brandon Shields was forced to call a timeout to keep the game from slipping away.
"We didn't really set up too much, we just talked about team and toughness," Shields said. "That's all we talked about ... it's hitting the fan right now. Who are you right now? Are we as tough as we talk about? And they really responded."
Following Noble's trey, Neff delivered a layup on a fast break to start a 7-0 run for Central. Neff twice found Herbaugh in the paint for easy buckets after driving into the lane -- one resulting in another traditional three-point play for Herbaugh -- and Neff delivered a pair of free throws to put the Falcons up 56-50 with 2:01 left to play.
"When I drive I'm just always trying to keep my head up, looking for [Herbaugh]," said Neff, who was 11 for 12 from the free throw line and had six assists and five rebounds to go along with 15 points. "He and [Travis] Cooper both do a good job cutting to the basket and finding that open spot. So I was definitely looking to the spots where I knew they were going to be."
George Mason briefly cut the Falcons' lead to four points on Mercado's baseline layup with 1:25 remaining, but Fadely (11 points) hit a bucket in the paint and Neff added two free throws with 36 seconds remaining to put the game out of reach.
Herbaugh scored 10 of his 11 points in the fourth quarter, and he also added 13 rebounds to lead Central. Cooper led the Falcons with 19 points to go along with 10 rebounds and four assists.
Central struggled in the first half with George Mason's full-court pressure, as the Falcons turned the ball over 11 times, but were still able to take a 29-27 lead into halftime.
The Falcons held a 16-9 lead after the first period behind six early points by Cooper, but the Mustangs were able to cut into the deficit in the second period behind an 8-for-11 shooting effort from the field in the frame.
"We got a lot more disciplined, I think we were a lot more patient in the second half than we were in the first half," Shields said. "We forced the issue a couple times in the first half, just trying to make something up. We were just trying to make the plays up that weren't there. Once we settled down, got the ball reversed a couple times, a lot of good stuff started to happen."
George Mason hit 22 of 62 (35.5 percent) shots from the floor in the game and struggled at the free-throw line, hitting just 8 of 16 shots.
Central was 18 for 43 (41.9 percent) from the field.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org