By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Strasburg has been in a bit of a funk over its last few basketball games, and it continued for the first three quarters of Friday's game against visiting East Hardy (W.Va.) in the first round of the Ram Hardwood Classic.
The Rams, despite forcing turnover after turnover throughout the game, somehow still found themselves tied with the Cougars after three periods of play. But Strasburg ramped up the defensive pressure in the final quarter, and the Rams eventually blew the game open in a 58-44 win.
Strasburg outscored the Cougars 25-11 in the final period, and forced East Hardy into 11 turnovers in the frame. The Rams forced 38 total turnovers in the game.
"We started playing our half court defense. I think we started getting in the right spot defensively and we caused a couple turnovers that got a couple run-outs and got them on their heels," Rams coach Matt Hiserman said of the decisive fourth quarter. "In the fourth quarter we finally stopped gambling as much and got in the right spots defensively, got a couple steals and got a couple buckets."
The game was close throughout the first three periods, as East Hardy (0-5) overcame its sloppy offensive play to tie the game at 33-all entering the final quarter.
Things remained close early in the fourth period, as both teams traded free throws before Strasburg senior Jonathan Kloosterman gave the Rams a 36-34 lead with a bucket in the paint with 6:25 to play.
From there the Rams (4-3) quickly pulled away behind an aggressive half-court man defense. East Hardy cut Strasburg's lead to 40-36 after a pair of free throws by Timothy Hahn (team-high 14 points) with 4:42 remaining, but the Rams erupted for an 18-5 run over the next four minutes to blow the game open.
"We had a stretch where they turned up the tempo on defense and they got a little more physical with us," Cougars coach Chris Hahn said. "Our guys physically couldn't get through that pressure defense. Turnovers lead to easy buckets, which leads to losing by 14 instead of a two-point ballgame."
Much of Strasburg's success in the fourth period came as a result of its suffocating defense, but the Rams were also helped by the presence of Kloosterman in the paint on offense. Kloosterman had eight points in the quarter, all of which came inside the lane.
Junior forward Ryan Smoot also had eight points in the frame for Strasburg.
"I think we did [have a size advantage inside], but we just weren't using it very well in the first half. That's why we were struggling so much," said Kloosterman, who scored 16 of his game-high 18 points in the second half. "In the second half we started taking care of the ball, getting it inside, and that's what really helped us in the third and fourth [quarters]."
Both teams struggled early on with turnovers, and both teams combined for 37 turnovers in the first half as Strasburg found itself clinging to a 21-20 lead going into the break.
Strasburg struggled for most of the game against East Hardy's 2-3 zone defense, and the Rams finished with 21 turnovers in the game, although just four came in the second half.
"That just shows how unfocused we were, to turn the ball over 21 times against a half-court zone," Hiserman said. "We've got to find guys who do the right thing against the zone. We hold the ball too much. We'll hold it and let the zone reset, and you can't do that."
"Part of it is we've got some guys who are just struggling offensively right now all the way around. It just steamrolls, and a night like this, if you're not ready and you're not making a couple shots early and you don't play defense, we're going to struggle."
Strasburg hit 21 of 56 shots, including just a 1-for-15 (6.7 percent) mark from beyond the 3-point arc. The Rams were also just 15 for 29 from the free-throw line, although they did hold a 30-29 advantage in rebounds, including a 16-6 edge in offensive boards.
Tyler Doman finished with 10 points for the Rams, and Noah St. Clair led Strasburg with seven steals. Kloosterman and Smoot finished with six and five rebounds, respectively.
Strasburg will play Luray in the tournament championship game tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD