By Brad Fauber
LURAY -- Longtime Clarke County boys basketball coach Brent Emmart knew the Eagles were going to be in a grinding game against rival Strasburg in the semifinal round of the Conference 35 tournament held Tuesday at Luray High School.
Clarke County, coming off a big win at George Mason on Monday in the quarterfinals, was making its second long road trip in as many days, and Emmart understood the energy level simply wouldn't be 100 percent there against the Rams.
Tuesday's game played out exactly how Emmart predicted it would, and senior Joshua Dulaney hit a pair of key free throws late to help the sixth-seeded Eagles upend No. 2 Strasburg, 40-37, to advance to the conference championship game on Thursday against Luray.
"It was two evenly matched teams, and we just found a way. Josh Dulaney had ice water in his veins, stepped up to the foul line and hit some big foul shots," Emmart said.
"I knew we had a tough task but our guys were physically and mentally tough, and you've got to give them credit for finding a way to get through the grind. And it was a grind. It was not pretty. We didn't have much flow on offense, but our defense really held up for us."
Both defenses dictated much of the action on Tuesday, and Clarke County (14-9) held just a 24-23 lead over the Rams (17-9) entering the fourth quarter. The Eagles finally found a little offensive rhythm to start the final period, as Dulaney's driving layup with 4:14 to play capped a string of four straight baskets that built Clarke County a 33-27 lead.
But Strasburg responded, as senior guard Tyler Doman -- who had been cold from the field for most of the game -- hit his second straight 3-pointer to bring the Rams back within three points.
Rams junior Ryan Smoot converted a reverse layup to cut Clarke County's lead to 34-32 with 1:45 to play, but Dulaney hit two free throws to put the Eagles back up by four 40 seconds later.
A bucket by senior Jonathan Kloosterman on the low block pulled Strasburg back within two points, and two made free throws by Smoot pulled the Rams within 37-36 with 22 seconds to play.
Clarke County senior Joshua Gray hit one of two free throws to give the Eagles a 38-36 lead late, but Smoot -- who was fouled grabbing a rebound following a pair of missed free throws by Clarke County's Colton Chrane -- went to the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game with 13 seconds left.
Smoot made the first free throw but misfired on the second, and the Rams were forced to foul Dulaney with 11 seconds remaining. Dulaney calmly hit both free throws to extend the Eagles' lead to 40-37.
Strasburg coach Matt Hiserman called a timeout with three seconds to play to draw up one final 3-point attempt, but Smoot's 35-footer skipped out of the basket at the buzzer.
"We didn't make shots," said Hiserman, whose team shot 30 percent (12 for 40) from the field in the loss. "Tyler Doman made some there in the fourth that got us right back in it. It was just one of those rivalry games where somebody's got to come out on top and somebody doesn't. They played well defensively and they made a few more buckets than we did."
Clarke County opened the game with a 7-0 run, as senior Sean McDonald (co-team-high 14 points) scored five points during the stretch. Strasburg responded with a 7-0 run of its own -- including five points from Smoot -- to tie the game at 7-all going into the second period.
Clarke County went more than 10 minutes in the first half without a field goal, but the Rams only managed to build a 13-8 lead with 2:35 to play in the first half. The Eagles then got a huge boost from senior Morgan Warfield (14 points), who hit three straight 3-pointers in a span of one minute, 15 seconds to give Clarke County a 17-13 lead.
The Eagles took a 17-15 lead into halftime.
"That changed it and got them back in it," Hiserman said of Warfield's 3s. "We missed a couple shots right in that stretch that could've put us up 15-8, 17-8 ... Warfield finally hit three in a row right there and that got them back into it. In the second half we got back up again by four or five and we just couldn't extend it."
Strasburg opened the third quarter on a 6-0 run to take a 21-17 lead with 5:22 left in the period, but Clarke County ended the frame with a 7-2 run.
Smoot finished with a game-high 21 points for Strasburg to go along with 13 rebounds, three steals and an assist. Kloosterman had eight points and 12 rebounds, and Doman had six points for the Rams.
Strasburg, which was playing for a home game in the first round of next Tuesday's 2A East regional tournament, will now have to travel in the tournament's opening round.
"Luckily we've got until next Tuesday to get ourselves regrouped and ready to go, because we'll be on the road somewhere in a tough game -- Tuesday night on the road against [Robert E.] Lee, Wilson [Memorial], East Rockingham, Riverheads, somebody that's going to be tough," Hiserman said. "We've got some time to get ready, the bad part is that you won't know who you're going to play until Friday night."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com