Falcons out for revenge in rematch with Lee in state semifinals

Varsey Bright

WOODSTOCK – Immediately after Central High School’s boys basketball team lost to Robert E. Lee in the Region 2B tournament championship game on Feb. 24, the Falcons wanted another shot at the defending VHSL Class 2 state champs. They’ve got one.

Central squares off with the Fighting Leemen in the state semifinal round at Spotswood High School at 7 p.m. tonight, and while the venue is the same as in their first meeting, the stakes are not. Unlike in the regional title game, the season ends for tonight’s loser, while the winner moves on to Friday night’s Class 2 state championship game against either Graham or Gate City at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It’s not just that Central lost to Lee in the regional championship that has the Falcons hungry for a rematch. It’s how they did so, blowing a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter before falling 71-68.

“Basically it’s a revenge game,” Falcons senior guard Varsey Bright said following practice on Monday evening. “We knew that we played well against them. We should’ve won that game if we kept our composure. Both opponents know each other. We know what each other can do and it just comes down to who can keep their composure at the end of the game.”

“Composure” was the word of the day for the Falcons at Tuesday’s practice. They showed poise in a 59-45 win over Goochland  Saturday in the state quarterfinals at Fluvanna, but now they must show it against what head coach Jeff Whittle called a deeper Lee squad that has more playoff experience, while playing in front of what is expected to be a very large crowd in Central’s first state semifinal appearance since 1999.

Jeff Whittle

The hope, Whittle said, is that the Falcons are better off after experiencing the ups and downs in the regional championship game, which included some unforced errors down the stretch as Central let a 58-45 lead slip away over the final 6:32 of the game.

“Just knowing that, reviewing film and then working on our press offense and working on certain situations, hopefully we gained some valuable experience that way and we’ll be ready for tomorrow,” Whittle said on Monday.

Asked what hurt them most in their lopsided fourth quarter against the Leeman, Bright and Falcons leading scorer Luke Estep each said turnovers – Central committed eight in the final period – and playing at a speed outside of their comfort zone.

“We were trying to get the ball and go, we weren’t trying to catch the ball and look and see what was happening in front of us,” Estep said, adding that playing at a speed more to their liking would be a key improvement for the Falcons on Tuesday night. “If we can control the tempo we can win the game.”

Central also would do well to find a way to slow down Lee’s 6-foot-8 all-state center, Jarvis Vaughan. The 2018 Region 2B Player of the Year and an Old Dominion University commit, Vaughan led all scorers with 26 points against the Falcons despite missing part of the second half with an ankle injury.

Luke Estep

The senior scored 16 points in the fourth period to power Lee’s comeback over Central, then scored a game-high 16 points in the Leemen’s 58-46 win over Greensville County in their state quarterfinal matchup last Saturday.

Outside of 6-foot-4 freshman Dominic Strother, the Falcons are short on players who can match Vaughan’s size and length on the interior.

“He’s gonna get some points,” Whittle said of defending Vaughan, “but we’ve just gotta hope to contain him and do the best we can to keep him off the glass, not let him have too many second and third chances.”

Lee (25-3) enters Tuesday’s semifinal game riding an 11-game winning streak and averaging 72.6 points per game.

Central (24-4), which is averaging 68 ppg, proved it could score against a Lee squad that is limiting opponents to 48.6 ppg. Six Falcons – Bright, Estep, Strother, Bryan Davis, Jared Patton and Sam Shifflett – all reached double figures in their first meeting with Lee, and Central’s 68 points were the third-most scored against the Leemen this season. Stuarts Draft, a team built on a system of high-frequency shots and minimal defense, was the only team to score more against Lee this season.

Despite that success on offense, Central also struggled at times against Lee’s full-court pressure – particularly with Vaughan as the point man in the backcourt, Whittle said – and Bright said what he was most impressed with after playing the Leemen was R.E. Lee’s resiliency.

“I mean we were up by 13, 15, and they didn’t give up,” Bright said. “They kept pounding and pounding it. I mean they’re a great defensive team. They have great big guys and great guys off the bench. Those are key assets when it comes to games like this. They’re scrappy, and you see it in the game. They caused us to have havoc and have a lot of turnovers. That’s what good teams do.”

A Central win tonight would send the Falcons to their second state championship game appearance in program history and their first in nearly 40 years. Central fell to Fort Defiance, 69-43, in the Group A title game in 1980.

Whittle, who made two state tournament appearances as a player with Strasburg in the late 1990s, said his best advice to the Falcons this week has been to have fun. Estep said each game in the playoffs has been “more fun than the last.”

“We’ve never been in this situation so it’s an experience for us,” Bright said, “so we’re just having fun and still laughing but also being mentally prepared for the game.”