Falcons’ comeback bid falls short in state semifinal loss to Lee

Luke Estep

PENN LAIRD – Central High School’s boys basketball team got the rematch it wanted against Robert E. Lee in the VHSL Class 2 state semifinals on Tuesday night. The Falcons’ quest to avenge their regional championship loss to the Fighting Leemen, however, came up short.

Central made an inspired comeback bid against the Leemen with a trip to the state championship game on the line, rallying from 15 points down to push the defending state champs to the brink in a 62-58 loss in front of a capacity crowd at Spotswood High School.

With the win, Lee advances to Friday night’s Class 2 state championship game against Gate City at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond. Central made sure the Leemen’s return to the state final was earned, as Lee held just a 57-56 lead with 1:15 remaining before putting the game away.

“When we went down by 14, 15, we sort of just realized that we need to act and we need to act now,” said Falcons senior Luke Estep, who finished with 23 points in the loss. “I think we did a good job of coming back, it’s just a few plays didn’t go our way. We didn’t capitalize on a few turnovers and that was the difference.”

Lee (26-3) threatened to blow the game open in the second half, when they erupted for a 15-5 run to open the third period and stretched the lead to 56-41 with 6:30 to play. The Falcons stormed back with a 15-1 run behind a defense that forced turnovers on nine straight Lee possessions.

Jeff Whittle

Following the Leemen’s ninth straight turnover, when a Lee ballhandler coughed up the ball right into Estep’s arms, Central trimmed the deficit to a point when Estep hit a layup in transition with 1:15 to play.

“Coach called for our 42, which is a trap and I think we executed that well,” said Estep, who scored 9 points in the fourth period. “We got what we wanted but once we were able to execute, like I said, we just couldn’t convert on a few. We had a few turnovers ourselves, a few missed shots. If those would’ve fell, then we’d be on the other end right now.”

Lee put the game away with a pair of buckets on back-to-back possessions coming out of a timeout. First, 6-foot-8 senior Jarvis Vaughan threw down an emphatic one-handed slam after Lee beat Central’s press. Then Lee senior Jayden Williams hit a bucket through contact, drew a foul and hit the ensuing free throw to put the Leemen up 62-56 with 43 seconds left.

Central’s Varsey Bright (9 points) connected on a baseline jumper with 16.5 seconds left, but that would be the final bucket for either side in the contest.

“All season long I felt like this team has no quit to them, so I wasn’t too nervous or too worried about it,” said Falcons head coach Jeff Whittle, who added that the Falcons were “a little worn out” after making their rally in the fourth period. “I just take it one possession at a time, and I’ll tell you what, that senior leadership in the huddles in there, they had the composure, just being very positive in the huddles, the seniors were. Luke I thought played an extremely good game, and without his production there we wouldn’t be where we were in this game.”

Vaughan, a 2017 all-state honoree and the 2018 Region 2B Player of the Year, finished with a game-high 25 points in the victory. Lee as a team was efficient on offense after taking an 11-10 lead into the second period, hitting 23 of 34 shots (67.4 percent) over the final three periods.

The Leemen were 10-for-13 from the floor in the second period, pushing their lead to as many as 8 points in the frame before Central rallied behind an scoring outburst by forward Dominic Strother. The 6-foor-4 freshman scored all 7 of his points during a 12-4 Falcon run that tied the game at 29-all late in the second period.

Central went into halftime trailing 33-29.

“You’ve gotta think that when you’re down that much, you can’t think that this could be the end,” Estep said. “… I think the few of us that thought that just gritted our teeth and played harder, and it helped us get back in the game.”

For Central, the loss marked the end of the line for one of the best seasons for the program in the last 20 years. The Falcons reached the state semifinals for the first time since 1999 and came within 5 points of earning their first trip to the state championship game since 1980.

“I told them hey, we’re one of the best four teams in this thing, we made it this far, be very proud because not many teams are playing right now at this time,” Whittle said.

“Just the seniors, proud of them. A couple guys had to alter their roles a little bit compared to last year and they just took it in stride and were very positive and very mature about it.”