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Falcons fall to Leemen in regional final

Sam Shifflett

PENN LAIRD — Central had defending state champion Robert E. Lee on the ropes Saturday night, but could not deliver the knockout blow.

The Leemen used a furious fourth-period rally to pull out a 71-68 victory in the Region 2B boys basketball tournament final at Spotswood High School. Both teams have advanced to the Class 2 state tournament.

“It was a heck of a game, especially probably from a spectator’s standpoint — fun to watch,” Central coach Jeff Whittle said. “I think just late in the game they created a couple turnovers and they were able to capitalize. And then (Robert E. Lee’s Douglas Simmons and Jarvis Vaughan) just kind of hurt us down the stretch.”

Central (22-4) led 58-45 with 6:32 left in the game. Robert E. Lee closed the game with a 26-10 run.

The Leemen (24-3) put pressure on the ball and used traps to create eight Central turnovers down the stretch.

Bryan Davis

“We had to put a little pressure on them,” Robert E. Lee coach Terrell Mickens said of the final six minutes of the game. “That’s a great team. Central’s a great team. We had to battle. We had to go into survival mode. And we did a great job of taking it one possession at a time and just keep fighting and keep fighting.”

Vaughan and Simmons combined for 5 straight points to cut the lead to 58-50 with 5:16 left. Central’s Luke Estep hit a 3-pointer to extend the Falcons lead to 11.

Robert E. Lee scored the next 7 points, including the 6-foot-8 Vaughan’s second dunk of the period, to cut the lead to 63-58 with 2:34 remaining.

Central’s Varsey Bright made a free throw and scored on a driving layup to help the Falcons take a 66-61 lead with 1:54 left.

Vaughan, who has signed to play next year at Old Dominion University, scored 6 straight points inside the paint to give Robert E. Lee a 67-66 edge with 40 seconds left in the game.

“He made some plays down the stretch,” Whitte said of Vaughan. “He’s got a lot of length. He’s athletic. He can run the floor. He does a lot of things well.”

Robert E. Lee didn’t relinquish the lead the rest of the way, but Central had plenty of chances in the final minute.

The Falcons turned the ball over on three straight possessions, while Robert E. Lee’s Jayden Williams and Vaughan made three free throws for a 70-66 lead with 15 seconds left.

Central’s Bryan Davis made a basket inside the paint to cut the lead to 70-68 with eight  seconds remaining.

Vaughan went 1-for-2 at the free throw line, keeping the Falcons’ chances alive, but Central turned the ball over once again. Williams missed both free throws, but the Falcons turned the ball over as the clock ran out.

Whittle said he thought Robert E. Lee’s experience helped them down the stretch.

“Of course they were in this thing last year, we hadn’t been in it,” Whittle said. “So they had a little bit more experience in the region championship from that standpoint. I think we were just a play of two away from almost sealing it. I’m just proud of their effort. And I don’t think there’s probably too many people that thought we could even play with these guys. We showed right there we definitely can play with them.”

The Leemen started the game with a 7-0 run. Bright hit two free throws to put the Falcons on the board with 5:56 left in the first period.

The two teams traded baskets until the Falcons closed the opening period with the last 4 points to trail 12-10.

The Leemen were able to extend the lead to 18-13 with 5:10 left in the second period on back-to-back baskets by Blaize Velvin.

The Falcons responded with a basket by freshman Dominic Strother and a 3-pointer by Davis to tie the game at 18 with 3:47 remaining in the first half.

Robert E. Lee was able to finish the half strong and take a 31-27 lead.

The Leemen stretched the lead to 40-34 with 6:05 left in the third period, but Vaughan suffered a leg injury and had to come out of the game.

The Falcons took advantage as the 6-foot-4 Strother scored 6 consecutive points inside to tie the game at 40.

Central continued to build on the momentum as Jared Patton hit two driving layups and Sam Shifflett hit two 3-pointers to give the Falcons a 52-42 lead after three periods.

“They kept their composure all game,” Whittle said. “We got a lot of good leadership. They don’t quit. I got a lot of confidence in the guys we got.”

With 1:14 left in the third quarter, Vaughan came back in the game. Vaughan scored 16 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth period.

“He’s a warrior,” Mickens said of Vaughan. “He went down and we got a little startled. But he got back up and he came and tapped me and said ‘coach I’m good.’ I believed him when he said that. I was taking him out on defense, but he told me don’t take him out, he’ll play defense. And he fought through it like a man.”

Central scored 6 of the first 9 points of the fourth quarter to take the 58-45 lead.

Simmons had 13 points for the Leemen, including 8 in the final period.

Robert E. Lee, which has now won 10 straight games, plays Greensville County in the state quarterfinals next weekend.

Central had six players in double figures. Shifflett had 14 points to lead the Falcons, while Davis had 11 points. Patton had 11 points and Estep added 10 points and 12 rebounds for Central. Bright had 10 points and six rebounds and Strother had 10 points and five rebounds.

The loss snapped Central’s seven-game winning streak.

Central will play Goochland at Fluvanna High School in the state quarterfinals at 7 p.m., Friday.

Last year Robert E. Lee lost in the regional final and rebounded to win the state title.

Whittle said the Falcons’ loss could be a good learning experience for the team.

“We can learn from this, and hopefully we may see these guys again,” Whittle said. “If we take care of business in Fluvanna we may see each other again (in the state semifinals).”