After battling injuries and illness throughout the postseason, the Oakton girls basketball team finally ran out of gas late in a 64-57 loss to defending AAA state champion Forest Park in the state semifinals at the Siegel Center in Richmond last Wednesday.
The Cougars, which overcame illness to coach Fred Priester and star
sophomore guard Jasmine Thomas and a back injury to senior point guard Samara Stephen-Dowd through their first Northern Region championship run since 2001 and in a win over Manchester in the state quarterfinals, saw an eight-point third-quarter lead slowly whittled down late in the third and early in the fourth thanks to some untimely turnovers and poor shooting down the stretch.
"We ran out of gas," Oakton coach Fred Priester said. "I think that some of those were fatigue-related turnovers. As the game wore on, we just didn‘t have the legs or the energy."
Taking advantage of the Cougars' misfortunes, the Bruins took the lead for the first time since early in the second quarter on a lay-up by junior guard Monica Wright with 2 minutes 23 seconds remaining in the game.
"The fourth quarter was all heart and desire, and that's all you can really ask for," Wright said. "It wasn't any Xs and Os, it was all up to us to decide to do it ourselves. Coach [Chrissy] Kelly couldn't do anything, it was just all in our hands. And when we decide to do something, most likely it's going to get done."
Forest Park tightened up defensively after Wright's basket — allowing the Cougars only two free throws by senior guard Andrea Ushinski over the remainder of the game — as the Woodbridge school clinched a return trip to the state final. The Bruins later fell to Princess Anne, 59-52, in last Saturday's final to finish 26-4. Oakton also finished its season at 26-4.
"We played a great game, they played a better one, and they won and we didn't," Priester put it simply. "Forest Park is obviously a very good team. They're much bigger and stronger than us. We fought for as long as we could, but we ran out of gas with about a minute or two left in the fourth quarter. They're the defending state champs, and they deserve that.
"They did a good job on defense, they got pretty physical there and it was hard for us to get to the basket, and after awhile, I think that fatigue contributed to some of the missed shots from the perimeter."
Added Stephen-Dowd: "We knew that we were getting tired and that we needed to slow the ball down. But they're a good team, and they're going to find a way to win, and that's what they did."
THE HIGHLY-ANTICIPATED match-up of Thomas, the two-time Northern Region player of the year, and Wright, the two-time Northwest Region player of the year, lived up to its billing.
The two guarded each other for much of the night, and Thomas' quick start helped her to game-highs of 21 points and 13 rebounds. Wright, a key part of Forest Park's run to the state title in just the school's fourth year of existence a season ago, scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. The two battled each other on both ends of the court, with Thomas displaying her ability to penetrate and elevate on her jump shot and Wright showing the toughness that has been a staple in her game these past two seasons.
"All I really did was lay back and look for her to pull up so I could get a hand in her face 'cause I wasn't going to let her get by me. So I basically just laid off of her," Wright said of guarding Thomas, who averaged 22 points per game this season. "She's definitely a good athlete, she's a great player. And I really enjoyed watching her over the summer, and coming up against her is just a new experience from a different style.
"Northern Virginia is definitely a different style than from we're from," said Wright. "It was really a good experience. She was using a couple of moves I'd like to use myself. She's definitely a great athlete, her first step is amazing. I wish I could sit and watch her."
The loss marked the end of the prep careers of Stephen-Dowd (10 points, 7 rebounds), senior guard Whitney Parker (7 points on 3 of 13 shooting), senior forward Kara Nadeau (9 points) and Ushinksi (6 points, 5 assists).
Stephen-Dowd and Parker were each four-year starters for Priester, while Nadeau's toughness coming off knee surgery last year was critical for Oakton this year.
"This has been a privilege to coach these kids for the past four years," Priester said. "They're a very special group that put in a tremendous amount of energy not only during the season but out of the season, to get to this point."