Wildcats recover from slow start to top Panthers

By Brad Fauber

FRONT ROYAL — Something just felt a little bit off when Warren County’s boys basketball team hosted Bull Run District foe Rappahannock County on Monday evening.

The Wildcats, playing their fourth game in six days, admittedly didn’t have their usual energy when they took the floor. Maybe they were suffering from some fatigue, which is understandable considering Warren County’s backlogged schedule. Or perhaps the Wildcats were looking past the lowly Panthers, who limped into Monday with just one win on the season. Or maybe Warren County was the victim of a small home crowd that was lacking its typical enthusiasm.

Whatever the reason, the Wildcats didn’t look as sharp as they could’ve been in the first half. But luckily for Warren County, the lowly Panthers could muster little against the district’s first-place team, and the Wildcats coasted to an easy 73-35 win.

“Coming in on a Monday and playing a game where it’s not the same because there’s no [JV] game before you, we’re playing at 7 — it didn’t really feel like game day when we went out there,” Wildcats senior Casey Stewart said. “With the crowd being so small, it’s hard to get motivated. That’s why I think that we came out struggling in the first half.”

Warren County (9-1, 5-0 Bull Run) looked to be in good shape early on as it forced a pair of steals on Rappahannock County’s (1-11, 0-7) first two possessions of the game before Wildcats senior Jontae Rollins nailed a 3-pointer from the wing to start an 8-0 Warren County run.

But the Panthers, behind the play of junior forward Walter Frye (team-high 18 points, four steals), scored eight of the game’s next 10 points to cut Warren County’s lead to 10-8 after Frye’s bucket in the paint with 2:38 left to play in the first period.

Warren County immediately extended the lead again, however, as Stewart answered with a 3-pointer and hit another trey with 15 seconds left in the period to cap a 9-2 run that gave the Wildcats a 19-10 lead going into the second period.

Warren County coach Vernon Mathews said his team was aware of Rappahannock’s struggles this season and he admitted he was concerned about how the Wildcats would respond.

“Give credit to Rapp, I scouted them earlier in the year and I thought this was the best they’ve been in a while,” Mathews said. “But we definitely came out slow, and I was unhappy with our intensity. They were out-hustling us, they were out-rebounding us and we seemed a step slow throughout that first quarter.”

The Wildcats quickly ballooned their lead to 28-12 midway through the second period as senior forward Blake Steele hit a bucket in the paint to cap another 9-2 run to open the quarter.

The Panthers briefly cut the deficit to 12 points following a 3-pointer by senior Evan Hitt with 2:03 to play in the first half, but Stewart — who led all scorers with 19 points — scored the final five points of the second period to send Warren County into halftime with a 33-16 lead.

Warren County shot 38.7 percent (12 for 31) from the field in the first half, while shooting just 37.5 percent (6 for 16) from the free-throw line.

“When we went to the locker room we all knew it. Everybody had that look on their face like ‘this is not Wildcat basketball,'” said Steele, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. “The fans weren’t in it, the players weren’t in it. A couple players were mad at themselves, including myself. You can’t let that stuff bother you. Basketball is a game of runs, if you do something bad you’ve just got to let it go and get back to it.”

The Wildcats looked much better in the third quarter, as they hit 8 of 11 shots in the frame and built a 52-28 lead by the end of the period behind nine points by Steele in the frame and six more from Stewart.

Mathews elected to sit most of his starters for the entire fourth period in preparation for Wednesday’s road game against second-place William Monroe, but the Wildcats still managed to outscore Rappahannock County 20-7 over the final period.

“Things that we really harped on at halftime were all on the defensive end. Boxing out on the boards, our help defense and the way we were playing their screens and their pick-and-rolls was horrible in the first half. I thought that that was the key, and we really improved that,” Mathews said.

“I was especially impressed with how the back seven, eight guys on our bench played. I thought they played extremely well,” he added.

Rollins had nine points for Warren County, while senior forward Josh Owens had six rebounds, four steals and three blocks to go along with three points for the Wildcats.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD