Jimmy McLaughlin leaped, snatched the ball out of the air and seemingly secured a state tournament berth for the Woodson boys’ basketball team.
The Woodson student section, nicknamed the “Cavalry,” stormed the court at Robinson Secondary School in celebration of what they thought was dramatic region semifinal victory over Herndon. In reality, the Cavalry arrived early and could have cost the Cavaliers the game.
As it turned out, Herndon failed to capitalize on its gift of an opportunity and Woodson was indeed moving on.
The Cavaliers defeated the Hornets 63-62 in overtime on Friday night in the semifinals of the 6A North region tournament. With the victory, Woodson earned a berth in the state tournament and will face Lake Braddock in tonight’s region championship game at 8 p.m. at Robinson. Herndon, the Conference 5 champion which entered the contest with a 23-2 record, is done.
The win was an emotional one for the Cavaliers, as two Woodson students died during the week.
“We’re doing this for the community,” Woodson senior Michael Szabo said. “We feel like this can bring it together in a positive manner in a negative time.”
Woodson head coach Doug Craig praised the Cavaliers for responding well to tough times.
“It’s been a really difficult week in the community and I thought our kids really showed their character,” Craig said. “To fight through and play that well on a big stage against a great team … and for our kids to fight through all the adversity and find a way at the end to pull out the game [was big].”
Woodson led 62-59 in overtime when Herndon’s Brandon Alston was fouled while attempting a 3-point shot with 1.3 seconds remaining, resulting in three free-throw attempts. Alston made the first two but missed the third. McLaughlin grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 0.4 seconds on the clock and Woodson leading 62-61. With the Cavaliers in the double bonus, the game should have been all but over with McLaughlin shooting two free throws at the other end and Herndon needing a miracle with less than a second remaining. Instead, Woodson fans rushed the court, thinking time had expired.
Officials gathered and discussed how to handle the situation. After a few moments, officials issued Woodson a technical foul, which would give Herndon two free-throw attempts.
“It’s been a really difficult week in the community and I thought our kids really showed their character. To fight through and play that well on a big stage against a great team … and for our kids to fight through all the adversity and find a way at the end to pull out the game [was big].”
--- Woodson boys' basketball coach Doug Craig
“That was a little stressful out there,” Szabo said. “It was a little bit overwhelming thinking that [Cavalier fans] could have cost us the game when they’ve been there for us all year.”
McLaughlin went to the line first and made one of two, extending Woodson’s lead to 63-61. Herndon then sent Dorian Johnson to the line for the two technical foul shots. Johnson made the first attempt but missed the second, leaving the Hornets trailing 63-62 with 0.4 seconds on the clock. Herndon had the final possession, but the Hornets’ inbound pass was swatted away and Woodson secured the win.
“You can’t really plan for something like that and it’s a shame,” Craig said. “Our kids were just excited. I’ll take our Cavalry anytime. They’ve bailed us out a couple times, we figure we can bail them out.”
Herndon led 26-22 at halftime. Woodson trailed by just four points despite standout point guard Eric Bowles sitting on the bench for more than 12 minutes of the first half after picking up his second foul with 4:25 remaining in the first quarter.
The Hornets opened the second half with an 8-2 run, taking a 32-24 with a Kent Auslander putback with 5:17 remaining in the third. Woodson countered with a 10-0 run to take a 34-32 lead. The teams went back-and-forth from there, with neither leading by more than five points for the remainder of the contest.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Szabo gave Woodson a 50-45 lead with 3:07 remaining. The Cavaliers led 54-52 late in the fourth quarter, but Alston scored with 5.5 seconds left to force overtime.
Bowles led Woodson with 14 points. Szabo scored a career-high 13 points and went 4 of 6 from 3-point range. Tre Johnson finished with 11 points. Andy Stynchula scored nine points and grabbed 13 rebounds, and McLaughlin finished with four points and 13 rebounds and Tyler Wilson totaled eight points and seven rebounds.
Alston led Herndon with 23 points. Kent Auslander scored 12 points and DeAndre Thomas and Johnson each had 11.
Herndon made just 13 of 29 free-throw attempts, including 7 of 19 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Woodson will face Conference 7/Patriot District rival Lake Braddock in tonight’s region final. The Bruins won each of the season’s three meetings between the teams by a combined eight points, including a 62-61 victory in the conference tournament championship game on Feb. 21.
“I know what it’s like to lose to a team three times and it’s the worst feeling in the world,” Lake Braddock senior Will Gregorits said. “I know they’re going to be there ready for us …”
Lake Braddock defeated South Lakes 78-61 in Friday’s second semifinal matchup, securing the Bruins’ first trip to the region championship game and first state berth in program history. Lake Braddock improved to 23-3 and has won 13 games in a row.
“It’s incredible. This is something Lake Braddock has never done before,” senior Reagan Jones said. “To be the first team to ever do it, that’s why we play. That’s why we practice every day. It feels great.”
Lake Braddock head coach Brian Metress credited the Bruins’ ability to capitalize on mismatches as a reason for success. Gregorits, a 6-foot-7 forward, scored 22 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and knocked down 16 of 19 free-throw attempts. Jones, a 6-foot-6 forward, finished with 20 points and six boards. Alexander, a 6-foot-3 junior forward, had eight points and nine rebounds.
“We have three bigs, and [South Lakes] had a situation where they tried to play two bigs and the problem is one [ours] is open,” Metress said. “The problem we were having was trying to diagnose which guy was open. I thought early in the game it was A.J., middle of the game it was Reagan, and the end of the game it was Will. You just have to pick your poison.”
Senior guard John Nice knocked down 4 of 7 from 3-point range and finished with 14 points. Lake Braddock shot 50 percent (7 of 14) from behind the arc.
While this will be Lake Braddock’s first appearance in the region final, it will be Woodson’s second in as many years. The Cavaliers won the program’s first outright region title in 50 years last season, beating Wakefield 75-70 in overtime. Woodson trailed by 19 points entering the fourth quarter, but came back to beat the Warriors.
Last year’s Woodson team advanced to the AAA state semifinals. The Cavaliers graduated eight players from that group, including key contributors Peter Murray, Tommy Stepka and Alex Boock. This year’s team started 4-3, including a 73-65 loss to Herndon in the season-opener on Dec. 3, but improved enough for a return trip to the region final.
“I told people from the beginning of the year we’re going to be a really good basketball team by the end of the year,” Craig said. “It may not be right away, but by the end of the year, we’re going to find a way to be a good team. I think it’s the character of this group that’s kind of showing through.”
*Woodson's 2013 AAA Northern Region title was the program's first outright region title in 50 years.