By Brad Fauber
QUICKSBURG -- A large deficit loomed over Stonewall Jackson's boys basketball team at halftime of Friday night's Shenandoah District game against visiting Riverheads, and Generals coach Patrick Smoot gave his team two options in the locker room -- Stonewall could continue to get beaten soundly, or the Generals could start playing the type of basketball that they knew how to play.
The Generals responded in the second half by erasing a 23-point deficit, but Stonewall fell just short of a complete comeback as the Gladiators held on for a thrilling 59-55 win.
"I said, 'You can sit here and we stay in this locker room and sulk and feel sorry for ourselves, or we can go out in the second half and actually play how we're supposed to play,'" Smoot said of his halftime speech. "And they did that. They stepped up and they went out and they busted their tails, unfortunately in a losing effort."
Riverheads (6-5, 1-3 Shenandoah) led 37-14 at halftime, but Stonewall Jackson (5-6, 1-4) stormed back in the third and fourth quarters to make it a one-possession game with just 10 seconds remaining.
Following a pair of made free throws by Generals senior Corey Polk that cut the Gladiators' lead to 57-53 with 20 seconds left, Stonewall Jackson went to the full-court man-to-man press that it used for most of the second half. Stonewall senior Colton Harlow managed to swipe the ball from Riverheads forward Kendall Casto near mid-court, and Harlow turned the steal into an uncontested layup on the other end to cut Riverheads' lead to two points with 10 seconds left.
"As soon as I saw him hesitate with his dribble I went and attacked him, just kind of jumped on the ball," said Harlow, who finished with a game-high 24 points, including 13 in the final quarter. "[The ball] hit a couple people's feet and then the next thing you know I came up with the ball. I was pretty hyped about that."
Smoot called his final timeout to set up one last attempt at a steal, but Riverheads managed to break the press with a pair of passes, and the ball eventually found its way to junior Graham Cash, who converted an open layup to seal the win.
Riverheads struggled for most of the second half with Stonewall's full-court press but ran its press break effectively when it needed to most.
"A couple times there late we just put our heads down and tried to go," Gladiators coach Chad Coffey said. "It was 'keep your head up, find the open person.' I think we made two passes there and we were able to get that last layup. It was because we kept our head up. That was the difference."
Stonewall Jackson, which has struggled to find consistency for four quarters all season long, appeared out of sync in the first half, as the Generals hit just 5 of 20 shots in the first two periods.
That changed quickly in the third quarter, as Generals junior forward Ryan Smith started heating up. Smith, who was held scoreless in the first half, exploded for 12 points in the third period.
Stonewall shot 52 percent (13 for 25) in the second half.
"We just came out and we knew we had to score points to get back in the game. We were down 20 and we just put an effort to put the ball in the basket and finish," said Smith, who finished with 18 points. "My teammates had confidence in me, and I just stepped up and hit one, two and then it just kept going."
Smith nailed a 3-pointer from the wing just 45 seconds into the second half, and Stonewall Jackson proceeded to outscore Riverheads 19-10 in the third quarter.
The Gladiators held a 47-33 lead entering the final period, but Stonewall kept rolling as Harlow scored five straight points and Smith converted a traditional 3-point play to cut the deficit to 49-41 with 6:34 to play.
A bucket by Riverheads senior Jared Miller (13 points) pushed the Gladiators' lead back to double-digits, but Harlow scored four more points during a 5-0 run that cut Riverheads' lead in half.
Smith followed with a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:52 to play that brought Stonewall within four points, and Harlow's reverse layup with 1:15 left made the score 55-51.
Cash (11 points) delivered on a wide-open layup against the Generals' press to extend Riverheads' lead to 57-51 with 45 seconds to play, and the Gladiators held on from there.
"We wanted them to respond, and they did," Smoot said. "We had to find five guys that were going to work and were going to push, and I felt like the five guys that we had on the court at the end were the ones that were going to do that.
"We have to put a full game together, and until we put a full game together we're going to continue to lose these close ones. This is the fourth one we've lost by six or less points."
Zach Roberts led Riverheads with 17 points, while Michal Sagula added 10 points for the Gladiators.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD