By Brad Fauber
LEESBURG -- Sherando's girls basketball team tried to rally for a win against host Loudoun County in the Conference 21 tournament semifinals on Thursday night, but the gigantic hole that the Warriors dug themselves early was simply too large to overcome.
A miserable shooting effort from the floor in the first half sent the Warriors into halftime trailing by 18 points, and although Sherando managed to cut the Raiders' lead to nine points in the fourth quarter, Loudoun County was able to hold on for a 53-35 victory.
"We weren't surprised by their talent, we just couldn't get shots to fall. I think that was one of the big things," Warriors coach Mike Marsh said. "They were more physical inside than we're used to playing and I think that just made us off on finishing our shots. We had a lot of opportunities to score early, we just couldn't put it in the basket."
Sherando (14-7), which was playing for a regional berth on Thursday night, struggled early against a tall and physical Loudoun County defense. The Warriors shot just 8.3 percent (2 for 24) from the field in the first half.
The Raiders (20-4) opened a quick 7-1 lead following a 3-pointer by junior forward Chloe Knox with 5:36 to play in the first period.
Sherando immediately answered with a 3-pointer by junior Heidi Brown to cut the deficit in half, but Loudoun County reeled off a 12-2 run to close the first period as six different Raiders scored in the opening eight minutes.
"We knew that we had to come up strong," Raiders coach Derek Fisher said. "[The Warriors] are really known for getting off to strong starts ... so we wanted to make sure we were ready to play at the beginning."
The Warriors' cold spell continued in the second period, as Loudoun County pushed its lead to 23-6 before Brown hit her second trey of the night with 6:30 left in the first half to pull Sherando within 14. Sherando managed just three points from the free-throw line for the remainder of the second period as the Raiders built a 30-12 halftime lead.
Loudoun County's combination of Knox and senior center Margaret Phillips -- both of which are listed at 6-feet tall -- caused problems inside against the Warriors' offense. The Raiders finished with 10 blocks in the game, including six from Knox.
"They changed some shots on us. They blocked some shots," said Marsh, who added that the Warriors didn't adapt quickly enough to the physicality of the game. "They kept those girls around the paint as much as possible, and when we were trying to get through, even when we got past their guards we had those two 6-footers to try to get around. We haven't seen that all year, a team that had two quality 6-footers like they have. It makes a big difference."
Sherando came out with a renewed energy in the second half, as the Warriors used a 10-2 run to start the third quarter to pull within 10 points with 3:05 to play in the frame. Five different Warriors scored during the run.
"We had to come out more intense, and our physicality had to be up more," said Brown, who led Sherando with 12 points. "We weren't going to give up, obviously, so we just had to keep on fighting more."
The Raiders then responded with a run of their own, as they closed the period on a 6-1 run to take a 38-23 lead into the fourth quarter.
But the Warriors again clawed back, as they scored on their first three possessions of the fourth quarter to pull within nine points. Junior guard Jessica Hakel -- who scored seven of her nine points in the final frame -- scored four points during the 6-0 run, and freshman Davina Lane added a layup to cut Loudoun County's lead to 38-29 with six minutes to play.
Loudoun County then came up big at the free-throw line, as the Raiders hit 5 of 6 free throws over the next 40 seconds to take a 14-point lead. The Raiders maintained a double-digit lead the rest of the way, despite hitting just 4 of 19 shots in the second half.
Phillips and Alyssa Paige each finished with 11 points for Loudoun County, while Elisabeth Gianelos had 10 for the Raiders, who will play Millbrook today in the conference championship.
"It's kind of tough, but a lot of people didn't think that we would go this far," Brown said of the loss. "The fact that we got this far and we still competed with this team meant a lot."
Marsh, who admitted he didn't have a postgame speech prepared for his team in the event that Warriors lost on Thursday, took a few seconds to gather his thoughts in the hallway outside the locker room before addressing his team after the game.
"I told the girls, they've made me a better coach and a better person, because of just what we had to go through this year," said the first-year coach. "It's been a very good year. I'm incredibly proud of them.
"I'm very happy with the way this season went. We probably didn't win as many games as we could've or should've, but we learned a lot about ourselves as people. And that's going to make us better for next year."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD