By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- The nightmare scenario was unfolding minute by minute for Warren County High School's girls basketball team Monday night.
Actually, it might have been worse than anything Wildcats coach John Kelly's subconscious could conjure up in the second half as he watched his team blow a commanding lead and lose its best player to injury in the second half of Monday's Conference 28 tournament quarterfinal matchup against visiting cross-town rival Skyline.
Somehow, some way, the Wildcats overcame the shock of seeing a 15-point lead turn into a two-point deficit and pulled together despite missing leading scorer Alesha Adams for nearly the entire fourth quarter. Warren County hit 8-of-8 free throws in the fourth quarter and locked down just enough on the defensive end to pull out a thrilling 38-34 victory.
Kelly felt as if the two halves played like two different games.
"The first game we won, the second game they won," Kelly said. "We just happened to have more points at halftime. They outplayed us in the second half. They won the ball more, they shot a lot better, Makaela [Dawkins] got really hot. But when it came down to it, we had to win without our go-to player."
Dawkins, the Hawks' sharp-shooting top reserve, poured in 10 fourth-quarter points as fifth-seeded Skyline (4-16) turned a 28-20 deficit into a 29-28 lead on her reverse layup with 5:47 to play.
Fourth-seeded Warren County (14-9), which held the Hawks to just six points in the first two quarters to grab a comfortable 21-6 halftime lead, took the lead back on Autumn Troxell's two made free throws just 12 seconds later.
Then Dawkins struck again with her second 3-pointer of the quarter, and a minute later Adams tried to come back for the Wildcats. The senior guard went down on a last-second shot to end the third quarter with what Kelly said afterward was another case of the recurring leg cramps that have hampered her all season. Adams gutted out another minute and change after coming back in the fourth before leaving for good with her team still down by two.
Vanessa Calevro evened it back up with two more free throws, then the Wildcats got a huge bucket on their next trip down the floor when Jordan Christian broke through the press and drove nearly the length of the court for a layup.
The Hawks misfired again on their next possession, and Calevro hit two more free throws to push the lead to four with 1:02 to play.
Shayne Clifton's offensive putback got the Hawks back to within two with 35 seconds to go, and Skyline's press promptly forced another turnover. The Hawks gave it right back on a double dribble call.
Skyline fouled Troxell on the inbounds play, and the senior hit both shots for the game's final points with 23 seconds to go.
"There was a lot of pressure," Troxell said. "I mean, this is a big game for us and we really care about it. This would be our last game if we would've lost, so we wanted to go out there and give it our all in the last few minutes that we could possibly play this year together. And I feel like we did that."
Dawkins, who finished with a team-high 11 points, thought her team could pull off the improbable comeback right up to the last.
"I thought we had a chance," Dawkins said. "We just fouled at the wrong time, fouled the wrong people."
Warren County looked in control after the first half, as Skyline managed to connect on only 2 of 22 field-goal attempts. The Hawks opened the third quarter on a 10-0 run sparked by six points from Nikea Whitmore (eight points, 11 rebounds).
"I thought they were just going to drop their heads, I guess, but they came back swinging," Calevro said.
The Wildcats had major trouble with Skyline's press in the second half. After committing just four turnovers in the first half, Warren County had 15 in the second half.
"We just picked them up," Skyline coach Jim Kenney said. "Anybody that picks them up and plays them full court like that can beat them. That's their Achilles' heel. We just didn't make that adjustment soon enough, and then there toward the end we just didn't hit and we didn't take care of opportunities that we had."
Calevro gave Warren County a nice boost with Adams ailing, finishing with eight points and eight rebounds. Calevro and teammate Lauren Woodrell came up with some key rebounds in the fourth quarter.
"We did a much better job rebounding in the last three minutes," Kelly said. "Either their shot went in, or we got the rebound."
Kelly said Adams will most likely be back for Wednesday's Conference 28 semifinal game at Loudoun Valley. A win there would advance the Wildcats to next week's regional tournament, and a loss would end the season.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>