By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Central nearly pulled off the upset in the first round of the Bull Run District boys basketball tournament against host Warren County on Monday night, but an early deficit doomed the Falcons once again.
Warren County, the two seed in the tournament, led by as much as 17 points in the second half against the seventh-seeded Falcons, but Central made a late push to make things interesting in the final minutes. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they were able to hang on for a 52-45 victory.
The Wildcats advance to play Strasburg in the tournament semifinals at William Monroe High School, with tip-off scheduled for 6 p.m.
"We didn't play great, but we didn't play bad. I give more credit to Central for playing well," Wildcats coach Vernon Mathews said. "I thought we competed until the end. It was good for us to have a close game and have to close it out. As we go forward they're going to get tighter and tighter."
Warren County (17-4) led 30-19 going into halftime and took a 40-23 lead midway through the third quarter on a baseline jumper by senior Casey Stewart, but Central (9-14) quickly closed the gap with a 13-2 run that stretched into the first minute and a half of the fourth period.
Falcons senior Ricky Neff got the run started with a 3-pointer from the top of the arc with 2:55 left in the third period, and he hit two more 3-pointers to open the fourth quarter to cut the Wildcats' lead to just six points.
Neff finished the game with a co-game-high 20 points, including a 5-for-8 mark from beyond the 3-point line.
"We know [Neff and Falcons senior Travis Cooper], either one of those kids can heat it up," Mathews said. "That's one thing we've been able to do in the first couple games is never let those guys get started, and tonight [Neff] got started. He hit some deep shots."
Warren County pushed the lead back to nine following a 3-pointer by senior Jontae Rollins (14 points) and a bucket inside by senior forward Blake Steele with 3:50 to play. But Neff responded with a runner in the paint, and Central junior Joseph McConkey scored on a baseline layup to cut the Wildcats' lead to 47-42 with 1:40 left to play.
Wildcats senior Shivam Mehta hit a deep 3-pointer with one minute left to put Warren County back up by eight, but Neff converted a conventional 3-point play to pull the Falcons back within 50-45 with 45 seconds remaining.
Warren County senior Kris Deal knocked down a pair of key free throws with 41 seconds left, and Central came up empty on two desperation 3-point attempts.
"I know we're not winning, but we are playing well right now," said Central coach Brandon Shields, whose team narrowly missed beating district leader William Monroe in the regular season finale last Friday. "We're still getting in holes a little bit early, but defensively we are where I've wanted to be all year. Right now, defensively, we're tuned in to what needs to be done. As the season has progressed we've been executing our game plan a lot better. We're making sure that everyone does what we're supposed to do."
Warren County's cause was helped by a fast start, which saw the Wildcats jump out to an 8-0 lead in the game's first few minutes. The Wildcats led Central 14-6 after the first period, and extended the lead to 20-9 midway through the second period on a fast-break layup by Stewart.
Central rallied back to cut the deficit to four points on a driving layup by Cooper, but Warren County closed the half on a 10-3 run.
Stewart was hot early for the Wildcats, scoring 15 of his 20 points in the first half.
"We come out and we have to battle back the entire game," Shields said of the Falcons' tendency to fall into early deficits this season. "I don't know if that's the difference or not -- fatigue-wise or mentally -- but it's tough to play down four, five or six points the whole game. It's just exhausting in a couple ways."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com