By Brad Fauber
ELKTON -- Ryan Smoot got a little redemption on Tuesday night.
One week after missing a free throw that would've tied the game late in a loss to Clarke County in last week's Conference 35 tournament semifinals, Smoot stepped to the line in a similar situation against host East Rockingham in the first round of the 2A East regional tournament.
Smoot, who had just swiped a steal from Eagles forward Logan Lam and was fouled on his fast-break layup attempt, had a chance to give Strasburg its first lead of the game with four seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. The junior calmly hit the first of the two free throws, and the Rams held on to complete a thrilling 36-35 win.
"One was enough tonight. It wasn't last week. It was enough tonight, and that's what matters," said Smoot. "I felt confident -- I think everyone's got to feel confident in that moment. You want to make two. I hit one and that was enough tonight, and it was a great win."
Smoot's late steal and free throw capped a thrilling comeback for the Rams, who rallied from a 22-15 halftime deficit to advance to Thursday's regional quarterfinal game at Bruton.
The Rams, who relied on their stingy half-court defense once again on Tuesday, tied the game at 29-all following a made free throw by Smoot with 5:47 left to play, and the two teams traded points over the next few minutes before Rams senior Jonathan Kloosterman retied the game at 35-all with a pair of free throws with 1:52 to play.
Strasburg senior Matt Clutter narrowly missed giving the Rams a lead with 1:10 remaining when his 3-point attempt rattled out, and an Eagles steal in the final minute gave East Rockingham a chance to set up for the final shot.
Following a time out with 30 seconds remaining, East Rockingham worked the ball around the perimeter while letting the clock wind down. But as Lam dribbled near the top of the arc, Smoot punched the ball out of Lam's possession and scooped up the loose ball near half court with less than 10 seconds remaining.
With the crowd roaring during the ensuing foot race, Smoot drew a hard foul from Lam as he went up for the layup, which set up Smoot's game-winning free throw.
"I don't know what they were doing, either spreading it out and letting him get the rack and create something. But I knew we had a foul to give, so I could get up in him and if I fouled it wasn't the worst thing in the world," said Smoot, who finished with eight points and four steals. "He put it on the floor to try to go to the bucket and I just tapped it away. Luckily I was able to grab it and get fouled."
Smoot's second free throw was off the mark, but the Rams wisely chose to foul Lam as he pushed the ball hard near half court with one second remaining. Following a pair of timeouts, the Eagles were forced to take an inbounds pass from near half court, and John Dofflemyers' contested 3-pointer at the buzzer fell well short.
"We got lucky that it ran all the way down to one second and it made it even worse," Rams coach Matt Hiserman said. "And then we told them in those couple timeouts that they're going to look for a lob ... if the ball is thrown up as lob, try to get a hand on it to start the clock."
It was a fitting end for Strasburg, which has relied heavily on its defense to win games as the offense has struggled to generate points.
The Rams trailed 11-9 after the first period, and the Eagles took a 18-9 lead with 4:40 left in the second period following a 3-pointer by Lam -- who scored all of his 11 points in the first half -- and a bucket inside by Joseph Gooden (12 points).
Rams senior Tyler Doman ended the run with a layup with 3:50 left in the first half, and Strasburg closed the second period with a 4-0 run as senior Noah St. Clair and Trevin Horward scored buckets to pull the Rams within seven.
St. Clair, who has served primarily as a defensive specialist this season, had six first-half points for the Rams.
"Noah kind of decided I think after the game against Clarke when people told him that he couldn't score out there on the floor ... and basically decided then that 'Hey, I'm going to get back to attacking the basket a little bit more,'" Hiserman said.
Strasburg's offense heated up against the Eagles' 2-3 zone in the second half, as Clutter shot himself out of a recent slump to hit three second-half 3-pointers. His second trey of the night brought the Rams within four points of East Rockingham late in the third period, and he hit another 3-pointer early in the fourth to pull Strasburg to within 29-28.
"The last couple games I wasn't able to get most of my shots to fall," said Clutter, who finished with a team-high nine points and four rebounds. "I lost a little confidence, but this game they were telling me, 'Just keep your head up and make your shots, we know you can.' And whenever I finally made my first one it just started a whole bunch of confidence that I got back."
Kloosterman finished with seven points and five rebounds for Strasburg, and Doman finished with four points and two steals.
"Now we get the task of going and playing Bruton, and it's going to be a task," Hiserman said. "But it's the playoffs and we'll go down there and try to scheme up something to try and slow them down a little bit. You never know, we may come out of there Thursday night with another one. It'll be tough going down there, but playoff time is playoff time."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org