South Lakes fought off a gritty Falls Church High boys’ basketball team on Monday night and defeated the Jaguars, 61-53, in a first round Northern Region playoff game held in South Lakes’ spacious Wendell Byrd Field House.
It was a breakthrough victory for the Seahawks (14-11) who, under first year head coach Andrew Duggan, are experiencing one of their best seasons in recent history. The win over Falls Church, a surprise finalist in the National District tournament last week, advanced South Lakes into Wednesday’s quarterfinals round contest versus cross-town rival and Concorde District champion Herndon, a first round region playoff winner over W.T. Woodson on Monday.
South Lakes, in the win over a physically small but determined Falls Church team, overcame a second half scare in which the Jaguars, after trailing by eight points midway through the third quarter, fought back to take the lead after three quarters and were in position to win right up until the final few minutes.
But in the end, South Lakes weathered the storm, outscoring the Jaguars 13 to three in the final four minutes to gain its first region playoff win in several years.
“It’s a very big win,” said junior forward D.J. Christian, who played a phenomenal game for the Seahawks with game-highs in points (28) and rebounds (11). “It’s [the programs] first region win in about seven years. It’s great for our coach and our team.”
South Lakes, late last week on Friday, Feb. 18, had undergone a lopsided, 64-37 loss to Langley in the finals of the Liberty District tournament. Langley, with the win, captured the district crown for the fourth straight year. South Lakes, while disappointed in that title game setback, took solace in the fact that it had made it to the championship game, having defeated Madison and McLean to do so.
“Making the finals was real big for us,” said Christian. “In previous years we’ve had troubles in the first round, so to get to the district finals felt good for us.”
<b>AGAINST FALLS CHURCH</b>, South Lakes, while far from playing a perfect game, bounced back strong from the discouraging Langley loss and reverted to the form it has shown most of this season – a campaign in which the Seahawks went a strong 9-5 in district play during the regular season.
South Lakes seemed to have the upper hand against Falls Church over the first half and on into the third quarter. The Seahawks led 15-10 after one quarter, 32-26 at halftime and 40-32 at the midway point of the third quarter following a fast break layup basket by junior guard J.D. Wallace (15 points) off an assist from Christian.
But Falls Church, which received stellar games from guards Nizar Alamin (22 points) and Romeo KC (14), then scored the game’s next 11 points, capped by a driving layup by Alamin that made the score 43-40 Jaguars with 58 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Moments later, Christian converted two free throws to snap the Falls Church scoring run and pull the Seahawks within 43-42 going into the final quarter.
South Lakes started the final quarter strong and led 48-43 on a rebound follow-up bucket by Christian with six minutes remaining. But the relentless Falls Church team answered with seven straight points to go back in front 50-48 with just over four minutes remaining.
Following a South Lakes timeout, Christian made a free throw to get his team within 50-49. Then, the Seahawks put together the biggest sequence of plays of the night to take command. A steal by Seahawks’ senior forward Darius Smith (8 points) led to a layup by Wallace to put the home team up, 51-50. Then South Lakes senior guard Joey Day (6 points) came up with a steal, resulting in a short range basket by Christian to make the score 53-50 Seahawks with 2:40 left. Later, the lead increased to 55-50 on another Wallace layup with just over a minute left to play.
A Falls Church three-point basket by Alamin got the guests within 55-53 with 37 seconds left. But immediately following the three-pointer, South Lakes beat the Jaguars down the court for a layup basket by Christian to make the score 57-53 with 29 seconds left. Falls Church never got closer and South Lakes secured the win as both Christian and Wallace hit a pair of free throws over the final seconds.
“They’re a tough team, disciplined and have one very good player [in Alamin],” said Wallace, of Falls Church. “The win feels great. We [struggled] but knew we could beat them.”
Christian said, “It’s a great win. We played hard, our defense was there, we rebounded and worked as a team.”
South Lakes had a great game at the foul line, converting 19 free throws to just one for Falls Church. Christian, who throughout the game seemed to come up with that key rebound or follow-up basket to help the Seahawks get the win, scored 14 of his 28 points at the line.
Coach Duggan was thrilled with the hard-fought win and what his team has accomplished thus far in the postseason, reaching the district finals and advancing to the elite eight at regionals.
“I’m very happy for the kids, our school and the community,” said Duggan. “This is something our players have been working for. We struggled tonight but had kids step up at the right time.”
South Lakes was scheduled to play Herndon in a quarterfinals game on Wednesday (Feb. 23). The Hornets eliminated South Lakes in the first round of regionals last year. The two teams played twice early on this season in December with Herndon winning both times - 79-64 at home and 82-56 at South Lakes.