By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- For much of Wednesday's Conference 28 semifinal game against visiting John Champe, Central's girls basketball team looked like it was going to roll to an appearance in Friday's conference championship game and a berth in next week's regional tournament.
The second-seeded Falcons held a double-digit lead at halftime over No. 3 John Champe, and Central extended that lead to 17 points early in the fourth quarter. Then things changed dramatically.
The Knights mounted a furious comeback in the game's final six minutes and eventually grabbed a brief lead before Central managed to tie it to force overtime. Luckily for the Falcons, they were able to hit some key shots in the extra frame to escape with a wild 58-53 win over the Knights.
Central will play at top-seeded Loudoun Valley on Friday at 6 p.m. for the conference title.
"It was an awesome all-around game," said Falcons senior guard Katelyn Poston, who finished with a season-high 32 points in the win. "We seemed to get a little bit weaker there in the second half but we picked it up and got our momentum back, which was really awesome. Our free throws, we were able to make those. We were just having a really good night. Hopefully we can continue it."
Central (16-8) -- which lost to John Champe by 18 points in their only regular season meeting back on Jan. 11 -- seemed determined to return the favor on Wednesday night, as the Falcons mounted a 26-14 lead at halftime and pushed that lead to 41-24 with 7:40 left to play in the fourth period.
But that's when things started to go awry for the Falcons.
Knights freshman Blair Thompson knocked down two free throws with 6:22 left to play, and that jump-started a furious 15-1 run for John Champe in less than two minutes of game time that pulled the Knights within 42-39 with 4:43 to play.
"I think their points just added up and then all of a sudden I think we were caught off guard and were forced to come back," Poston said. "But I think that was good. It was a good learning experience. It's going to help us throughout the playoffs to be able to know not to give up and continue to fight through that kind of stuff."
John Champe (13-11) got a huge boost in the fourth quarter from sophomore guard Ja'che Malone, who exploded for 13 of her team-high 21 points in the period.
A strong showing at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter also helped the Knights, as they hit 12 of 13 free throws in the frame after going 6 for 15 from the line in the first three periods.
"We were a little bit more in attack mode, in more of a desperation mode," Knights coach Will Patton said. "I think ultimately what made the difference was that we started making some foul shots towards the end."
Central ended John Champe's run when Poston found freshman forward Tamra Scott in the paint for a bucket, and two free throws by Poston with 2:57 left gave the Falcons a 46-39 lead.
John Champe then used a 7-0 run -- capped by a 3-pointer by junior Alexis Smith -- to tie the game at 46-all with 1:55 left. Both teams traded two points on their next possessions, and the Knights took a 50-48 lead with 1:31 left to play on two made free throws by Thompson.
Two free throws by Poston -- who went 16 of 19 from the line in the game -- tied the game at 50-all with 1:27 to play, but John Champe elected to milk the remaining time off the clock and try for the final shot. Thompson's runner with a few seconds remaining in the fourth clanged off the backboard and forced overtime.
"I thought they were going to attack and I just kept waiting for her to make a move ... I was like alright, just chill because we don't want to put them on the line," Falcons coach Mallory Skarupa said. "We didn't want to foul them and give them easy buckets. We wanted to make them earn it."
John Champe -- which had four starters foul out of the game, including Malone -- took a two-point lead in overtime on free throws by Thompson, but Central gained a 53-52 lead following a free throw by Scott and a layup by Poston with 2:12 to play. A free throw by Sydney Plum gave the Falcons a two-point lead, and two free throws by Poston put Central up 56-52 with 46 seconds left.
A wide-open layup by Scott in transition with 25 seconds left sealed the win for Central.
"I think we got a little scared there in that fourth quarter because of foul trouble and we kind of sat back on our heels instead of playing defense like we know how to," Skarupa said. "But it definitely gave us a gut check there and we could've crumbled, and we didn't. I'm so proud of the resolve that we had at the end of that game."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org