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When Matt Ayoub took the floor against Herndon earlier this month, he didn’t know what to expect. The sophomore guard had never played in a varsity game before, nor had he ever donned a Woodson uniform. Ayoub was a wafer-thin transfer from Paul VI Catholic High suddenly thrown into the fire against one of the top basketball teams in the state.

The season opener ended with a 73-65 Herndon victory, but much of the chatter leaving the gym that night wasn’t about the well-rounded Hornets roster that could contend for a region title this year. It was about the new Woodson kid who just dropped 32 points on them.

“I didn’t expect it at all. It was my first varsity game ever,” said Ayoub, who played 26 minutes off the bench that night. “They left me open, and I just shot the ball like I know how to.”

Indeed, Ayoub let it fly from a variety of spots on the court. Whether it was a catch-and-shoot jumper from the corner or a high-arcing floater in the lane, the soft-spoken two-guard wasn’t shy about letting his prodigious offensive skill set do all the talking. His maturity shined in careful shot selection: 12 of 17 field goal attempts made, six of 10 from three-point land.

Junior point guard Eric Bowles, whose foul trouble paved the way for much of Ayoub’s playing time, had a message for his new teammate coming off the court that night.

“I was like, every time I pass you the ball, shoot it,” he said.

Ayoub had a harder time heeding that advice in the next three games, totaling only 17 points during that stretch. But his sweet stroke reemerged in the Cavaliers’ first road contest Tuesday night, a daunting matchup against top-ranked Robinson. Ayoub poured in a game-high 21 points, displaying strong handles that produced good looks in the lane and renewed efficiency that saw him go 3-for-3 frfom beyond the arc. Bowles added 17 points and seven assists to lead Woodson (3-2) to a 68-64 victory.

Though it was merely a nonconference win in December, Tuesday’s result felt like something more. It helped the defending region champions get back on the good side of .500 after starting the year with a pair of tough losses against regional contenders Herndon and Edison. It also provided a shot of confidence to a new-look squad still trying to establish a cohesive identity.

Bowles, a first-team all-region point guard as a sophomore, is the only returning starter from last year’s senior-laden group that advanced all the way to the state semifinals. Heavy responsibilities weigh on the Cavaliers’ undisputed floor leader this season, but much of that pressure seems to have been removed by Ayoub’s breakout performances.

“It’s early in the season, and we’re a new team,” Bowles said Tuesday. “I was expecting it to be hard in the beginning of the season because we needed to get our chemistry together. Today showed how hard we’ve been working.”

Ayoub isn’t the only transfer lending Bowles a helping hand this year. Trey Johnson, a junior making the switch from Middleburg Academy, came off the bench Tuesday night to score nine points, all in the second half. If Ayoub is Woodson’s new Tommy Stepka — a lanky sharpshooter that can stretch defenses with his jumper — Johnson is its new Michael Hansler, an athletic wing with a nose for the basket.

Aside from the newbies, Woodson relies on a cluster of returning upstarts determined to make the transition from role player to reliable contributor. Andy Stynchula, a burly 6-foot-4 senior forward who can step back and shoot the trey, is working to become a dependable presence on the boards, while senior guard Jimmy McLaughlin is trying to be a more consistent scorer.

Then there’s Tyler Wilson, a 6-5 junior forward who reached double figures in each of his first four starts this season after seeing limited minutes last year. The Cavaliers’ revived depth stood out Tuesday night, when they were able to beat a quality opponent without Wilson, who sat out with a back bruise.

“We have a lot of kids that can really play,” said Woodson coach Doug Craig, now in his ninth year at the helm. “It’s a new team, though, and I think building that trust will be important. That group last year had great trust because they played together the year before as juniors... For kids that are talented it can be tough buying into the team concept and doing everything together as a group and understanding that it will pay off with your wins and losses. Hopefully [Tuesday’s] win reinforces that going forward.”

Echoing the point guard who keeps his team’s engine churning, Craig said he never expected the early rough patch to point to troubles down the line. The departure of eight seniors from last year’s historic squad, he says, holds no bearing on the fate of this year’s group.

The Cavaliers aren’t afraid to shoot for glory. Just ask Matt Ayoub.

“We’re trying to go all the way,” Woodson’s sophomore marksman said. “What they didn’t finish last year we’re going to finish this year.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com