By Drew Goodman / Scrimmageplaycva.com contributor
With only one Group 3, Region C playoff bid remaining, Friday’s Jefferson District quarterfinal clash between No. 6 Monticello and No. 3 Fluvanna became a de facto elimination game for both teams.
While most of the JD boys and girls’ teams knew their regional fates regardless of what went down in the district tournament, both the Flucos and Mustangs were fighting for their playoff lives.
Trailing for much of the contest and struggling mightily in a half court offense, Fluvanna head coach Chad White determined that if his team were to move on, it would have to rely on its defense to jump start the offense.
After giving zone a try for the first half, White elected to return to his team’s aggressive brand of man-to-man defense in final 16 minutes of play.
Sure enough, the strategy worked.
As a team, Fluvanna notched 23 steals, while making life miserable for the Mustangs as soon as they inbounded the ball. The heavy defensive pressure enabled the Flucos to rally from an 11-point deficit to inch past Monticello 33-30.
With the win, Fluvanna (13-10) earned a shot at No. 2 Charlottesville in the District semis on Monday night, and also punched its ticket to the regional tournament beginning the week of February 19.
“It’s very exciting; we want to try to continue the season as far as we can,” Fluvanna guard Neveah Ivory explained following the win.
Ivory tallied the game’s final five points from the free throw line in the closing two minutes and change of the fourth quarter.
With the score knotted at 30 and time winding down off of the clock, Fluvanna’s Jemika Johnson intercepted a pass and throw it down court to a streaking Ivory, who drew a foul.
Facing the two biggest free throws of her young career, the sophomore knocked down both of them to give her team the lead for the first time. Ivory, who was a popular outlet option following a Fluvanna steal, later added another foul shot to further keep the pressure on Monticello.
“I was nervous, but I just had to do it. I just kept calm, and they went in,” said Ivory of the late-game free throws.”
Ivory missed a pair from the charity stripe with a chance to ice the game late, but appropriately enough, the game ended on a Fluvanna County steal, when sophomore Jules Shepherd took the ball away before MHS could attempt a game-tying shot, which effectively slammed the door on the Mustangs’ season.
In an effort to combat the Mustangs’ size advantage in the post, the Flucos began the game in a zone defense, which resulted in a slower, half-court type of game on both ends of the floor.
The only problem was that Monticello’s Camille Blaine was still getting seemingly everything that she wanted in the low block regardless. Blaine notched eight straight Monticello points in the post in the second quarter, and then an early three-point play in the third to lift MHS to its largest lead of the game at 11 points.
Following a timeout by White, the Flucos moved to a nice blend of full court pressure and half court traps, and Blaine would not score for the remainder of the contest. In fact, the Mustangs were barely able to successfully get the ball into the paint for the final 10 minutes-plus of the game.
“We told them that the only way that we were going to win was that we had to get steals and turnovers,” White said. “The biggest thing was that we just had to get one stop at a time… We mixed it up a little bit with our zone and then we went man, just because of the simple fact that the game was getting away from us, and the only way that we were going to get buckets was to pick up the pressure.”
As Fluvanna’s defensive intensity picked up, so too did the offense at the other end of the floor. After Monticello’s Zhynia Johnson briefly put stopped the bleeding for her team in the first minute of the final quarter, Fluvanna closed the game on a 13-1 run, thanks in large part to its numbers advantage following Mustang turnovers.
Johnson’s bucket with 7:03 remaining in regulation marked Monticello’s final field goal of the contest.
After the game, a small, yet spirited Fluvanna County student section poured onto the court to celebrate the regional tournament-clinching win. Though there is still at least one more district tournament game to be played, many of the younger Flucos were overjoyed to earn a spot in regionals for the first time in their careers.
“We’ve been [to regionals] before, I’ve been in all of these years… I’m the old man of all the coaches it seems like, but I do it for them so they can get a taste of that,” White said. “It’s memories that they’ll keep forever, just getting that opportunity, but we’re still going after the championship in the district.”
On the other side, Monticello’s season ends with an overall record of 11-11. The 2017-18 campaign marked a successful first season under interim head coach Juwuhn Smith, who lead the Mustangs to more victories than in the previous two seasons combined.
Six of Monticello’s 11 defeats came by two possessions or less, and the Mustangs won three of of their last four contests heading into the JD tournament, including a triumph over district-leader Western Albemarle.
Despite the disappointing result on Friday, Smith is proud of how her team improved this winter.
“They made great strides,” Smith said. “I think it was overall, offensively and defensively, almost like they were a completely different team… I was telling them that they had nothing to be ashamed of. I said that they did everything that we asked this year and they had one heck of a season.”