By Drew Goodman / Scrimmageplaycva.com contributor
Following a disappointing loss to rival AHS in the Jefferson District semifinals, things began trending up for the Western Albemarle boys basketball team in a big way.
After steamrolling through their first two regional opponents to earn their third trip to states in as many seasons, the Warriors embarked on a run that will live in Western Albemarle lore for many years to come.
The three-game stretch included a regional title triumph at Spotswood, a thrilling buzzer-beating victory over Hidden Valley in the state quarters, and a stunning upset of previously-unbeaten Northside in the state semis.
After proving that they were the best team in the west, the Warriors thought that they had seen it all.
That is until they lined up opposite a juggernaut John Marshall squad in Saturday’s state title game.
The Justices, led by one of the nation’s top sophomores in forward Isaiah Todd and a host of other Division I prospects, jumped on Western early and cruised to 63-42 triumph over the resurgent Warriors.
“I’d like to congratulate John Marshall — they’re really really good, to make an understatement,” Western Albemarle head coach Darren Maynard said. “It’s kind of like playing a college team with the size and athleticism they had.”
Knowing full well that Western was oozing with confidence following one of the biggest wins in school history, Todd and the Justices looked to set the tone early against the undersized Warriors.
That is exactly what they did.
John Marshall (23-6) used an 8-2 first-quarter run, highlighted by a pair of dunks, to jump out to a double-digit advantage, and the Justices remained comfortably ahead for the rest of the game.
Todd had a few highlight reel plays, but the Warriors held him to just 10 points by throwing just about every big body they had at the talented big man. Western clearly did its homework on the Justices and attempted to draw early fouls on both Todd and fellow stalwart Demarr McCrae.
The only problem was, that the John Marshall bench was loaded with even more offensive firepower that was waiting to be unleashed.
Reserve guard Jarious Ashlock reeled off nine of his 13 points in the second quarter and the Justices began to heat up from beyond the arc.
Western Albemarle had a glimmer of hope with both Todd and McCrae being on the bench with foul trouble. Charlie Weyher knocked down a pair of free throws to cut the Marshall lead to 25-15 and force the Justices to call a timeout.
Ten points were as close as the Warriors would get for the remainder of the contest though. After a 4-0 Western run, Ashlock and the Marshall reserves quickly outscored WAHS 12-2 in the closing minutes of the first half to build a 20-point lead at intermission.
“I think their bench killed us,” Maynard said. “We didn’t expect them to come in and make all of the threes that they made. Our game plan was to play our packline defense and try to keep them from driving on us. Sometimes that worked well and sometimes those bench guys made us pay for it.”
Western Albemarle played its best basketball of the afternoon in the opening minutes of the third and fourth quarters.
The Warriors took the court with a renewed sense of energy in the second half. Tommy Mangrum opened the third quarter by driving into the land of the trees and tallying a hard-fought bucket, which energized the large contingent of Western Albemarle students behind the basket.
Western outscored Marshall 12-6 in the first six minutes of the second half and pulled to within 14 on two separate occasions.
Western trailed by 19 heading the final quarter, but the Warriors continued to chip away at the deficit. The Warriors trotted out the same inbounds set to Mangrum that won them the Hidden Valley game in the quarter’s opening seconds, and this time, it resulted in a three-point play.
Then, Garrett Payne knocked down a three-pointer to pull WAHS to within 13. Both Payne and senior Chris McGahren later countered offensive highlights for Marshall with crowd-silencing mid-range jumpers, but the Warriors could not pull any closer than 13 points down.
McGahren led Western with 11 points, while Mangrum added seven points and eight rebounds.
Western Albemarle held John Marshall to 12 points below their season average and made life much more difficult for Todd and company than the Justices had likely envisioned. Despite being outsized and by several inches at nearly every frontcourt position, the Warriors stuck to their guns and ended up out-rebounding the much-taller Justices by one.
Western Albemarle senior Jed Strickland, who was one of the guys tasked with stopping Todd and company pointed out the group effort that it took to get on track in the second half.
“I think this was all based on teamwork,” Strickland said. “We don’t have any superstar on this team. We all work together. When we face these more athletic, bigger teams, it takes all five on the court at each time… We all work together and get it done.”
As the fourth quarter went on, Maynard pulled out of his seniors, one at a time, so they could garner the proper farewell from the bench and from those in the stands. Strickland, McGahren, and Teo Rampini each received well-deserved ovations from the Warrior faithful as they exited the court for the final time in a Western uniform.
“I can’t say enough about [the seniors’] leadership this year,” Maynard said. “They were the difference and set the tone. They’re tremendous leaders by example. I don’t know anyone that works harder than my three seniors and I’m so impressed with them.”
McGahren was a member of the varsity program since he was a freshman with Strickland and Rampini joining the varsity ranks soon after. During the trio’s time at Western Albemarle high school, the Warriors made three trips to the state tournament, won the 2018 Region 3C Title, and advanced to the state finals for the first time in program history.
“I’m very thankful for the experiences that I’ve had,” an emotional McGahren said. “I put my all into this and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished over these four years. I thank all of the teammates throughout the years, coach Maynard, coach (Ryan) Hughes. It’s a special program, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”