FRONT ROYAL — For a Warren County boys basketball team trying to figure how to win after a three-victory campaign a season ago, Tuesday’s home game against Strasburg served as a valuable learning tool.

The Wildcats led by double-figures for most of the non-district contest and held a 13-point advantage with less than six minutes to play, only to see the Rams threaten to upend Warren County’s quest for its first win of the season. Warren County was able to hold on for a 66-61 win, but not before Strasburg twice trimmed the Wildcats’ lead to 2 points in the final minute to add intrigue to a game that Warren County had held firm control of for the first three periods.

“Just closing out games, that’s something we haven’t been used to in the past,” said Wildcats senior Aidan deVenoge, who had 13 points and was one of four double-digit scorers for Warren County. “I think getting used to that is really the important thing. It’s something that you can’t really teach in practice. You just have to learn through experience, and I guess that’s what we have to keep working on.”

Warren County (1-3) led by as many as 15 points multiple times in the contest and held a 58-45 lead with 5:54 to play after senior Robert Cameron made two free throws. That’s when things started to get interesting.

Strasburg junior Kamryn Pangle (16 points) made it an 11-point game with his baseline jumper immediately following Cameron’s free throws, and the Rams cranked up their defense out of a timeout, going with a 2-2-1 full-court zone that sent the Wildcats reeling.

On its next 11 possessions after Strasburg switched to full-court pressure, Warren County committed seven turnovers and came up empty on two trips to the free-throw line. The Rams capitalized by rattling off a 13-2 run over a span of 4 ½ minutes, with Trevor Sager’s fastbreak layup off a Da’Neil Holliday steal pulling Strasburg within 60-58 with 1:05 to play.

“I felt there was some panic,” said deVenoge, who noted that the Wildcats had yet to see a zone press like that prior to Tuesday, “but after all, we have to stay calm, keep our heads. I think that’s something that’s really different from last year. We didn’t keep our heads last year. This year we’re keeping it down to earth, know what’s important, make the smart play, make the right play.”

Cameron was left wide-open in the paint for an easy bucket after Strasburg failed to force a foul call on Warren County’s next possession, but the Rams got those points back when Craig Pangle (18 points) hit a pair of free throws on the other end.

Leading 62-60, Warren County took a timeout, and Wildcats freshman Gabe Davis (10 points) took an inbound pass coast-to-coast for a layup that put his team up four with 20 seconds to play. A pair of Davis free throws eight seconds later sealed the win.

“We didn’t give up,” said Cameron, who tied fellow senior Hunter Pratscher for the team lead with 15 points and added nine rebounds. “Last year we gave up, gave up a lot. When it was a close game, we just folded. This is a learning experience and we’re not gonna do it this year. We’re a different team, we’re a better team, we’re a faster team. We’ve got a bunch of good, young players. We’re good.”

A hot start set the stage for the Wildcats’ first win of the season. After falling behind 6-2 in the first three minutes of the game, Warren County went on a 17-6 run over the rest of the opening period, a spurt that included a deVenoge dunk in transition and 8 points from Pratscher.

Warren County led 19-12 after the first quarter and extended its lead to 32-17 midway through the second period before taking a 36-27 lead into halftime. The Wildcats’ lead wouldn’t dip below 9 points until the 4:42 mark of the fourth period.

“We got off to a fast start, which helped us, and took good shots,” Wildcats head coach John Kelly said. “Our goal tonight was every possession has to count, and for the most part they did. It was back and forth in the fourth quarter but every time they would try to make a run in the third quarter we’d answer and keep that 8- to 10-point spread. That’s big for us. That’s maturity right there for our players.”

Warren County was dominant inside against a Strasburg team that shot poorly for the second straight game and finished with a 34 percent mark from the field. The Wildcats scored 40 of their 66 points in the paint (they were also 13-for-23 from the free-throw line), scored 18 second-chance points and out-rebounded the Rams 32-31.

Warren County 6-foot-6 senior Ricky Dodson bullied his way through the paint on his way to 9 points, nearly giving the Wildcats five double-figure scorers.

“They got a ton of offensive rebounds because we weren’t keeping guys in front of us,” Rams head coach Larry Fox said. “We were having to help, which our rotations weren’t very good on the backside. They were getting a ton of offensive rebounds. We need to do a better job of containing the ball and keeping it in front of us.”

The Wildcats, who lost a trio of games to Class 4 schools by an average margin of 19.7 points to start the season, host Clarke County on Friday riding the momentum of a win.

“That’s huge,” Kelly said. “Having to play those (Class 4) schools and playing them pretty close, pretty tight for three of the four quarters definitely helps, but now we know that we can compete with anybody. That’s been our goal for the early season is take one step, every day take one step forward and hopefully we can keep doing that.”

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