By Jeff Nations
QUICKSBURG -- Colton Harlow had a great view -- a courtside seat, no less -- for a good chunk of Friday night's boys basketball county clash between Central and Stonewall Jackson.
Harlow enjoyed watching his Generals, long the losers in this annual series battle toe-to-toe with the Falcons while he sat out the entire second quarter and chunks of the first and third with foul trouble. He enjoyed it, but he hated it, too, so much that he didn't mind a bit to give up his seat for the climatic fourth quarter. Held scoreless until he returned for the final time late in the third period, Harlow proceeded to tally 15 points over the final eight-plus minutes to help lead Stonewall to a thrilling 54-50 victory.
Harlow even notched the biggest points of the night, calmly draining a pair of free throws with just more than four seconds to play to make it a two-possession game and essentially seal the win -- the first victory by the Generals against Central in decades.
"I just know when I get up there on the free throw line in tight situations, I've got to hit them," Harlow said. "Free throws are pretty much just a mind game. You've got to get up there and know you're going to hit them."
Stonewall Jackson (2-0) surged to a fourth-quarter lead behind Harlow's shooting and the solid inside play of forward Corey Polk (game-high 20 points). Harlow's jumper from the baseline with 3:55 to play capped a 12-1 run -- with all Stonewall's points coming from those two -- that put the Generals up 46-35.
Central (0-1) clawed back into it by hitting some free throws down the stretch and getting a needed 3-pointer from Richard Neff, whose trey with 1:09 left got the Falcons back within six points. Zach Herbaugh's tip-in on Central's next possession made it a four-point deficit at 50-46 with 46 seconds to play.
Ryan Smith's made free throw pushed the lead back to five for Stonewall, but Central's Travis Cooper drilled a short running jumper that got his team back to within three. Smith, fouled again on the inbounds after the Falcons couldn't come up with a steal, sank 1 of 2 from the free-throw line on his next trip to push the lead back to 52-48.
The Falcons got a fifth-chance bucket from Herbaugh on a putback on their ensuing possession, but it took too long by burning nearly 20 seconds off the game clock. Forced to foul once more, they sent Harlow to the line for the decisive free throws.
"It wasn't for lack of effort. I thought we fought like heck there to get back in it in the last couple minutes," Central coach Brandon Shields said. "We'll have to build off that."
The Falcons are still feeling the effects of the school's deep playoff run in football, and had practiced at full strength for less than a week before Friday's season opener under their new coach. Shields admitted that had an effect, but was in no mood to make excuses.
"We can use the football excuse all we want, but nobody really cares and it doesn't really matter," Shields said. "It comes down to what you do, and tonight we just didn't get it done. There were certain stretches there where we needed to get a big stop or we needed to work around and get a big bucket, and it just wasn't there for us."
Neither team did much early, Central forged a 7-4 lead by the end of the first quarter. Harlow was on the bench with his second foul by then, and missed the whole second quarter. Despite his absence, the Generals thrived as freshman Ian Pugh took over the point and helped his team build a 19-18 halftime lead. Pugh hit six free throws in that quarter, including the go-ahead score with 16 seconds left in the half.
"Colton is a big contributor for us, and teams are going to try and take him out of the game some way or another -- maybe fouls or double teams or whatnot," Stonewall coach Patrick Smoot said. "It's a thing where if one man goes down, another one's got to step up. And that's exactly what happened tonight."
The Falcons ran into their own foul trouble in the third quarter, as Herbaugh picked up his fourth with 7:25 left in the period and had to take a seat. That prompted the Generals to look even more for Polk, who tallied nine points in the third and nine more in the fourth.
"My coach always tells me to post up no matter what the size of the other person is," Polk said. "When [Herbaugh] went out, I definitely saw an opportunity to start attacking more and I knew it'd be a lot easier to score."
Harlow was back late in the third quarter, and just in time to make a decisive difference for the Generals.
"Colton and I had a little heart-to-heart on the bench late in the second half," Smoot said. "When he went back in there he was focused and ready to go, and he took the game over a little bit for us."
Harlow admitted to feeling "cold chills" after earning that long-awaited win over the Falcons, just two nights after the team won for the first time against fellow county school Strasburg in years.
"Being 2-0 and knowing it's against two county rivals, that is an amazing feeling," Harlow said. "I mean, words can't describe it. Honestly, this is probably the most emotional win for me that I've had in my whole life in any sport I've played in.
"To come out here and final beat them and kind of pull it out at the end, the team in the locker room actually got pretty emotional. It was a lot of tears of joy."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>