By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- When Central needed to create some distance against visiting Skyline on Wednesday night, Falcons senior forward Travis Cooper was only too happy to oblige.
Twice in the second half, Cooper was in the middle of decisive runs. The first, in the third quarter, started the Falcons on the path to a comfortable lead. The second, in the fourth, put away the Hawks for good in Central's 66-51 boys basketball victory.
Cooper provided huge production for the Falcons with game highs of 23 points and 16 rebounds, helping Central (7-11) snap a four-game losing streak.
"Travis rebounds the ball extremely well," Falcons coach Brandon Shields said. "He does all those things that we really need -- we need to be able to rebound the ball well and we need to score, and he provided both those things tonight."
Down 28-27 early in the third quarter, Central got a boost when Cooper drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Sam Barbour followed that with two straight 3-pointers as part of a 10-2 run that gave the Falcons a 38-30 lead with 5:08 to play.
Hawks coach Jacob Bates second-guessed his decision to switch from a man-press defense to a zone-press look to start the second half.
"It got exploited pretty badly," Bates said. "I've got to accept some credit for that. We went to a press there in the third quarter that I thought might be a nice execution switch and it gave them some open looks. We didn't rotate very well."
Skyline (2-14) got back to within four at 38-34 on a pair of free throws by Josh Smeltzer, but Cooper's steady scoring helped the Falcons build a 47-37 lead by the end of the quarter.
Then in the fourth with Central still up 10, the Falcons' Ricky Neff drilled a 3-pointer from the corner. Cooper followed up with a steal at midcourt and converted the ensuing layup to effectively put away the Hawks.
"In the fourth quarter, your seniors need to step up and play well," Shields said. "I thought Travis really stepped up and played well and Ricky finally got something to go down. He hasn't been shooting up to his capabilities lately, and if we can get him on track I think we can do some damage."
Barbour (21 points) kept the Falcons in the game in the first half, tallying 10 points and three of his five 3-pointers during that stretch. His deadly range helped the Falcons build a 17-7 lead by the end of the first quarter, but Skyline came roaring back in the second with help from its bench.
Wyatt Haffer came off the bench to sink a pair of treys, Smeltzer chipped in four points and Dillon Sirbaugh had a bucket in that frame. Haffer's second 3-pointer gave the Hawks their first lead at 23-22, and Skyline might well have led at the half had Austin Fadely not drawn a foul shooting a 3-pointer and hit 2 of 3 free throws with no time left on the clock. That gave Central a 27-26 halftime lead.
"Coach always tells us to fight through adversity," Barbour said. "After halftime, being up one, we definitely came out and shot well."
Neff added 12 points, Fadely had 10 and Zach Herbaugh chipped in nine rebounds in the win.
"It's a big turning point for us because we needed a game to get our momentum back and get us playing better as a team," Cooper said. "Coach Shields mentioned that this was our third quarter of the season and we needed to win as many games as possible to get a good seeding for the playoffs."
Smeltzer led the Hawks with 12 points and Haffer had nine on three 3-pointers, and Skyline got a double-double from starter Antwan Swain (11 points, 10 rebounds). It was one of the better offensive performances of the season for Skyline, but it wasn't quite enough.
"We wanted to be the more energetic team tonight, and for the most part we were," Bates said. "But in the second half when they lulled and we lulled, they were able to score a little bit better."
Shields thinks this win could be a turning point for his team.
"I think we're really starting to mesh as a unit here," Shields said. "We had some adversity earlier in the season where some people were kind of doing things on their own. But I really think, especially our seniors, have bought into us playing together as a unit and really trying to find a way to make things work together."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>