WOODSTOCK -- Twice a scuffling Madison County boys basketball team has pushed Central well into the fourth period this season, and twice the Falcons have escaped with a victory.
Just over two weeks after rallying to beat the Mountaineers in Madison on Jan. 18, Central hosted Madison County in the regular-season finale on Tuesday night and needed a one-sided fourth-period to pull away for a 61-50 Bull Run District win.
It was the fourth straight victory for the Falcons (17-5, 8-2 Bull Run), who had already locked up the No. 2 seed in the district tournament and the Region 2B tournament berth that comes with it, and the eighth loss in 10 league games for the Mountaineers (7-15), who a season ago fell to Central in the Bull Run District tournament championship game.
“I think it’s last year, they competed against us a lot, they competed against us in the playoffs and now they just want revenge and they play hard against us,” said Falcons junior Alex Neff, who scored 8 of his 18 points in the fourth period and finished with eight rebounds. “Down there it was a comeback. We were down, I think, 20 at one point and we had to come back and work our butts off in the fourth quarter. I think here, it’s senior night and we just brought intensity from the start. The beginning of the third quarter we slacked off a lot and then we finally picked it up and played our game.”
Tuesday’s game was as even as they come through three periods, at which point Central turned a 1-point lead into an 11-point win by outscoring the Mountaineers 21-11 in the final quarter.
Leading 40-39 to start the fourth period, Central took the first double-digit lead for either team with an 11-2 run that included buckets from five different Falcons. Silas Ruhling’s layup in transition off an assist from Jared Patton following a Neff steal gave Central a 51-41 lead with 4:40 to play.
“At their place … the same thing happened -- we got out, we started playing good D, we started getting in transition,” said Patton, who had 8 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in the win. “We were getting out, we were pushing it more, we were finding the open guy, we were finishing layups, we were knocking down some shots. Once the defense starts going, we get some steals and some points, I think we start getting a little run going and we can just push off that.”
Central held Madison to a 4-for-15 mark from the field in the fourth period while making six of its 11 shot attempts, but the Mountaineers mustered one final run to get back in the game and a pair of buckets from William Graves pulled Madison County within 52-48 with 2:39 left.
Between those two baskets, Central sophomore Dominic Strother -- a 6-foot-6 matchup problem who carried the Falcons’ offense in the first and third periods and finished with 18 points and seven rebounds -- fouled out after getting called for an offensive foul with 3:08 to play.
“We got their best effort,” Falcons head coach Jeff Whittle said, “and being in a tight game I thought we had great performances out of Neff, and Dominic was playing well until he fouled out. We’ve just gotta learn to play without fouling. We can’t afford not to have Dominic’s length in there. It’s been a couple games, so we’ve gotta find ways to keep him out there.”
A Patton free throw gave Central a 5-point lead, and Ruhling connected on a timely 3-pointer from the corner that pushed the advantage to 56-48 with 1:36 to play.
The Falcons’ struggles at the free-throw line continued -- Whittle said they’ve shot between 50 and 60 percent from the stripe in recent games, and they were 13-for-23 on Tuesday night -- but they made enough of them over the final 1:12 of the contest while Madison missed its last six shot attempts.
“Silas hit a big three,” Whittle said. “I was kind of hoping maybe (we’d) just pull it out and run some time off but it was a big shot, kind of the dagger right there.”
Central didn’t hit many of those shots from distance in the win -- the Falcons were 4-for-17 from beyond the 3-point arc -- but it scored 34 points in the paint and shot 45.8 percent from the floor while limiting Madison County to 35.8 percent.
“Usually we shoot really well at home but coach has been preaching if you’re not shooting it we’ve gotta push it inside,” Patton said. “We were getting to the rack pretty well. We were feeding the post and in the beginning Dom was getting some easy buckets in there.”
Whittle said he felt the Falcons took shots too quickly at times and would like to see better ball movement to create better shots. He added that some of Central’s late-game decision-making -- the Falcons turned the ball over three times during Madison’s 6-0 run that cut the lead to four late in the fourth period -- left something to be desired.
“We just gotta look at the film, look at those situations, know what the score and the time is because a play like that can come back to haunt you in the tournament,” Whittle said.
Central, whose only Bull Run District losses this season have come to George Mason, won’t return to action until the district tournament semifinals next Tuesday (against the Strasburg-Rappahannock County winner), giving the Falcons some needed practice time in the meantime.
“This will be good for us to get some work in and hopefully sharpen up, get some individual work and improve some of our team offense and team defense,” Whittle said.
“I got a lot of confidence in this group. I still don’t think we’ve put forth a complete game yet,” he added, noting that he had feared the Falcons peaked too early with their hot start to the season before they hit a brief slump, after which they’ve won 12 of their last 14 games. “Now I think we’re getting rolling, so I’m excited about how we’re getting in peak form again. Hopefully this will take place in the tournament and lead into the playoffs.”