Falcons’ rally comes up short

Central's Tamra Scott drives past George Mason's Raquel Dod during first quarter action Wednesday night during the Conference 35 Finals in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Central girls basketball coach Bryan Scott remembers something he learned from former Falcons head coach Jerry Walters during Scott’s own playing days at the school, a statement that, in a nutshell, emphasized the importance of being sharp coming out of halftime.

The Falcons weren’t on Wednesday night, and it cost them dearly.

Hosting No. 2 George Mason in the Conference 35 tournament championship, top-seeded Central was sloppy with the basketball early in the third quarter. That helped the visiting Mustangs turn a halftime tie into an eventual 15-point lead, a deficit that even a frantic fourth-period rally couldn’t overcome for the Falcons in a 46-42 loss, their second in three games against Mason this season.

The loss dropped Central to the second seed in the Region 2A East tournament, which begins Friday when the Falcons host Robert E. Lee at 7 p.m.

“(Walters) always told us, I remember when I played for him, that the first 10 possessions of the second half was probably gonna show you the outcome of the game,” said Scott, whose team had four turnovers in those first 10 possessions of the third period. “We didn’t take care of the ball. … We’ve been good about taking care of the ball this year and we’ve kind of regressed. And that was the key. That third quarter was the key to the game.”

George Mason's Elizabeth Dodge strips the ball from Central's Ayanna Strother in a steal attempt during third quarter action of the Conference 35 Finals Wednesday night in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

Though the third period – during which George Mason (15-6) out-scored Central (19-3) 17-4 – was ultimately the Falcons’ undoing, the Mustangs’ decisive run actually began at the end of the first half.

Central had used an 11-0 run to take an 18-13 lead with a minute to go in the second period, but the Mustangs scored five unanswered points in the final 35 seconds of the half, a brief span that Falcons junior Tamra Scott said “really killed us.”

Mustangs sophomore Nicole Bloomgarden, who accounted for all five of those points en route to a game-high 16, tied the game at 18-all heading into the break when she gathered a rebound off her own missed free throw and hit a contested jumper from the wing as time expired.

“I definitely think that was our lack of basketball smart because we let the shooter get her own rebound and then put it back up,” said Tamra Scott, who had 15 points, nine rebounds and three steals to lead the Falcons. “For me, I wasn’t in the game, but that definitely looked like we weren’t ready for it. It was definitely a bad thing on our part.”

That 5-0 spurt by George Mason turned into a 12-0 run in the second half, which eventually ballooned into a 37-22 lead with 7:10 left in the fourth quarter. But despite appearing on the brink of a collapse, the Falcons were not quite finished.

Central's Brooklyn Pumphrey expresses her disappointment after falling behind the George Mason Mustangs during the Conference 35 Finals held Wednesday night in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

A bucket in the paint by Central freshman Kendall Herbaugh (5 points, seven rebounds) ended a near four-minute scoring drought for the Falcons with 6:55 to play, and Central began using a full-court zone press and playing what Bryan Scott called “Central basketball.”

The increased pressure forced the Mustangs into four straight turnovers that turned into baskets by Cianne Fields, Herbaugh and Tamra Scott, who also hit two free throws to cut Mason’s lead to 37-32 with 4:20 left.

“I told the girls in there, I’ll take the blame for this one because I probably should’ve pressed a little bit sooner,” Bryan Scott said, adding that he shied away from using the press earlier in the game because he didn’t feel the Falcons ran it with enough success in their first two meetings with Mason.

A pair of free throws by Sarah Lubnow ended Central’s 10-0 run but the Falcons came right back with a free throw by senior Meredith Phillips, two more by Tamra Scott and an offensive stickback by sophomore Ayanna Strother to cut the Mustangs’ lead to 39-37 with 2:40 left.

George Mason was able to maintain at least a two-point lead the rest of the way despite turning the ball over four times in the final two minutes, giving the Mustangs a total of 11 turnovers in the fourth quarter alone.

Central's Meredith Phillips, left, congratulates Tamra Scott on a second quarter bucket that was converted to a three-point play during Wednesday night's Conference 35 Finals in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

Mustangs coach Michael Gilroy said Central’s press has given his team trouble in all three games this season.

“I mean you can prepare for the press but in the heat of the moment with a crowd, when they’re on your back, the nerves tense up, then they can only see one thing at a time instead of who’s open. And that’s what happened,” Gilroy said. “I kept telling them we were one stop away for about three minutes and we finally got it there at the end.”

Central pulled within 44-42 with 45 seconds to play when Fields hit a floating shot along the baseline – a “fluke” shot that Bryan Scott said he hoped would give the Falcons some momentum – but George Mason (10 of 22 from the free throw line) hit four of their final six shots from the line to ward off the Falcons.

Central had a chance to tie the game trailing 45-42 with 17.5 seconds left coming out of a timeout, but Phillips’ very deep 3-point attempt off an inbound pass caromed harmlessly off the backboard. Bryan Scott said he’d drawn up a play during the timeout for Tamra Scott to potentially take the tying shot.

“It was a deep shot but Meredith’s probably our best outside shooter, so who better else to take an outside shot than her. It just didn’t fall,” Bryan Scott said.

Central head coach Bryan Scott speaks to the team during a time out during last night's Conference 35 Finals against Geoge Mason in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

The Falcons hit just 22.7 percent of their shots from the floor in the loss and were 6 for 24 in the fourth period, including 0 for 8 from beyond the 3-point arc.

Fields finished with 8 points and seven rebounds, while Phillips added 7 points, five rebounds, three blocks and three steals for the Falcons. Strother had 7 points and four steals.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com