By Jeff Nations
PURCELLVILLE -- Warren County wasn't ready to quit on its season Wednesday night.
The Wildcats, trailing by 12 at halftime against Loudoun Valley in a do-or-die Conference 28 girls basketball tournament semifinal game, had struggled to stay even that close against the Vikings in the first two quarters. The shots weren't falling, the turnovers mounting, and nothing seemed to be working.
Instead of bailing, the Wildcats buckled down and went to work over the final two quarters to pull within two points early in the fourth before ultimately running out of steam in a 44-33 loss that ended their season.
"I'm very proud of them," Warren County coach John Kelly said. "They could've walked in here and quit at halftime, but they decided to ride it out."
Warren County (13-10) found itself in a 25-13 hole at the break, with turnovers largely to blame. The Wildcats had 18 first-half turnovers, while forcing only three against Loudoun Valley (15-6). Leading scorer Alesha Adams, hounded by the chaser in a box-and-one, had only three points.
"We had to run in here, had 14 minutes to warm up -- we didn't have our sea legs yet," Kelly said. "I think once we got past that initial freak out that seems to happen to us, we settled down and played a great second half."
Stopping Adams, a Christopher Newport University commit, was paramount in the mind of Loudoun Valley coach Kenyamo McFarlane.
"She's obviously their go-to player, very savvy, can shoot it, is very smooth," McFarlane said. "I figured if we could tire her out, and I've got enough athletes to stay with her, we could tire her out and maybe frustrate her a little bit."
Adams was frustrated, but stirring up that emotion might well have backfired on the Vikings in the second half. If Adams couldn't score, she could still defend. When Kelly decided to chuck the Wildcats' triangle-and-2 and man-to-man defenses in favor of a familiar 2-3 zone to start the second half, the Wildcats started forcing turnovers and altering shots.
"We weren't going to give up without a fight," Adams said.
In one stretch midway through the third quarter, the Wildcats forced three straight turnovers to spark a 7-2 run to end the period. Jordyn Beckner took the leading role with a steal at midcourt that she converted into a layup, then delivering a nifty assist in the paint to teammate Paige McLachlan for a short jumper.
The Wildcats, down just five heading into the fourth quarter, cut into that lead even more when Adams sank a free throw and Lauren Woodrell scored off an inbounds play to pull her team within two at 31-29 with 6:24 to play.
That prompted McFarlane to burn a timeout, and the Vikings grabbed back the momentum on their ensuing possession when Emily Thompson hit a critical 3-pointer.
"We were rising our crest up, and they answered right back," Kelly said. "That's kind of what tipped it back in their favor."
Loudoun Valley started burning time off the clock to try and force Warren County out of its zone, and slowly rebuilt its lead as the Wildcats went cold. Jerica Mingo's made free throw pushed the Vikings' lead to 38-30 with 2:20 left, and after Adams matched that with one of her own Warren County had to start fouling. Kirsten Graves sank both ends of a one-and-a-bonus free-throw attempt, the Wildcats failed to convert, and Thompson made up for missing the front end of an ensuing bonus opportunity by grabbing the offensive rebound for a putback that sealed the victory with 42 seconds left.
With the win, Loudoun Valley clinched a spot in next week's 3A East regional. First they'll host Central in Friday's Conference 28 championship. Game time is 6 p.m.
"When you get to the playoffs, you're going to get everybody's best shot," McFarlane said. "But we came out strong in the first half, which I was proud and happy with, but give credit to Warren County. They came out fired up and hit some crucial shots, and they gave us a little battle."
Lindsey Sweet led the Vikings with 12 points. Thompson and Graves added 11 apiece.
For the Wildcats, Adams had nine points and Woodrell added eight.
With the loss, the Wildcats said goodbye to seniors Adams, Beckner, Woodrell, Vanessa Calevro and Morgan Butler.
"When they got to the school, we were winning two games a year," Kelly said. "Since they've gotten here, we've won over 50 games. That's a tribute to how hard they work, and they hold the younger players to higher standards now. They're the building blocks."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>