LURAY – Strasburg’s defense of its Bull Run District tournament crown was thwarted by district newcomer Luray on Thursday night. Little more was on the line than a trophy and bragging rights, though, and much like the Rams’ loss to the Bulldogs two weeks prior, Thursday’s setback could be a learning tool heading into next week’s Region 2B girls basketball tournament.

Teetering on the brink of a blowout loss after a miserable first half in which they shot less than 10 percent from the floor, the Rams made a game of it in the second half, pushing Luray to the buzzer in a 48-44 Bulldog win.

It was a classic case of digging too large a hole early – the Rams, who made just 2 of 21 shots in the first half and were shut out in the second period, trailed by 15 at halftime and by as many as 18 in the third period – but Strasburg at least showed some resiliency and did so on the road in a packed gymnasium that held the energy of a high-stakes playoff game.

“I saw life,” Rams head coach Darin Jenkins said. “And probably a lot of them had us written off after the first half, the way we shot the ball. You’re not gonna win a whole lot of games when you only score 9 points in a half. Just didn’t shoot very well in the first half, got good looks, just couldn’t convert them. But I’m proud of the way they came in, they competed in the second half and made a game out of it. I told them, we play like that both halves, it might be a different outcome.”

Thursday’s contest was the third of the season between Luray (24-1) and Strasburg (23-2), which will be the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the Region 2B tournament. The teams had split two regular-season meetings prior to the district tournament finals, with the Rams winning 53-44 in Strasburg on Jan. 10 and the Bulldogs returning the favor in Luray with a 57-43 victory on Feb. 4.

Both teams have work to do in next week’s regional tournament – Strasburg hosts county rival Stonewall Jackson, which took the Rams to overtime in their last meeting on Feb. 7, in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, while Luray hosts No. 8 Clarke County – but the stage is set for a potential fourth meeting between the Rams and Bulldogs with a Region 2B title on the line.

Thursday’s second-half performance could go a long way toward helping the Rams get back to the regional finals. Strasburg, which has 14 double-digit wins this season, had won three of its previous four games by 2 points or fewer entering the Bull Run District championship, and getting blown out of the building by the Bulldogs on Thursday could have been disastrous for the Rams, who have aspirations of surpassing last season's state quarterfinal appearance.

“If we’d have played like we did in the first half in the second half, we probably wouldn’t be sleeping much this weekend because we’d be worried about it,” Jenkins said. “But listen, we’ve got a veteran group. They responded. I expect them to come back and respond next week. Right now everybody’s 0-0. I’ve got all the faith in the world. I like this team a lot and I’m proud of the way they competed tonight and I have no reason to believe it won’t be like that next week.”

Strasburg won’t last long in the playoffs if things go the way they went in the first half on Thursday. The Rams went the final 13:38 of the first half without a field goal, and it took until the 6:46 mark of the third period before someone other than senior forward Christyan Reid made a shot for Strasburg.

Jenkins said he was happy with the shots the Rams took in the first half. Strasburg’s two field goals in the first period were chip shots under the basket from Reid, and the Rams were 0-for-10 from beyond the 3-point arc in the first half. It didn’t help the Rams that foul trouble sent Reid to the bench for a five-minute span in the first and second periods and limited her aggressiveness.

Reid, who finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, added that the Rams were affected by the game’s atmosphere and the capacity crowd.

“I feel like everyone was definitely nervous,” Reid said. “It was a big crowd, everybody kind of had butterflies. I think we were just playing off.”

“Every game from here on out is gonna be a lot like that one,” Jenkins said. “... Great, great high school basketball environment. Couldn’t ask any more from both sides as far as the fans are concerned. But yeah, I think getting exposure to that in this game will hopefully help us down the road as we get going here.”

Strasburg’s offense finally got going in the third period, though the Rams were trading buckets with the Bulldogs and trailed 38-21 in the final minute of the quarter before Reid made a shot in the lane.

Reid’s basket was the start of a 15-2 Ram run that cut Luray’s lead to 40-36 with 1:29 to play. Reid and fellow forward Jaden Alsberry (11 points, 11 rebounds in the win) each had 6 points in the fourth period, though it was sophomore Madi Stinnette who gave Strasburg’s offense a lift in the final quarter.

Stinnette scored 8 of her 10 points in the fourth, including two 3-pointers, the second of which pulled Strasburg within 46-42 with 14 seconds left.

“Madi Stinnette came in there and gave us a big spark,” Jenkins said. “The thing about Madi is she can shoot the ball. When she gets hot it’s hard to cool her down, and I think we saw some of that tonight. I was proud of her.”

Luray, which made just 14 of 29 free throws in the win, did enough at the line over the final minute to ward off the Rams as sophomore Emilee Weakley and junior Brynlee Burrill combined to make six of 10 free throws in that span.

Weakley, who was named the Bull Run District Player of the Year following the game, had 26 points and 10 rebounds in the win, and Burrill added 14 points for Luray.

For as poorly as Strasburg shot in the first half, the Rams (31.6 percent, 18-for-57 from the field) actually ended up outshooting the Bulldogs (30 percent, 15-for-50) in the game.

“I’ve got all the confidence in the world,” Jenkins said of how he feels heading into the regional tournament. “I feel good, I really do. Obviously I’m not saying that in a way that I’m overlooking anybody because I know Stonewall’s gonna come in there and they’re gonna be hungry. We went into overtime with them last time. They’re a team that’s very capable of beating us, but I like where we’re at. I like what I saw in the second half. The girls are hungry. Hopefully, we can get back and get another shot in the championship game.”

Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com