To anyone donning navy blue in the stands at Robinson Secondary, Woodson’s 41-30 halftime lead might have felt like a comfortable advantage in Saturday night’s 6A North Region championship game. But to the boys in Woodson’s locker room, it probably felt like the most fragile lead in the history of basketball.
Woodson led Lake Braddock 38-21 with three minutes to go in the half before surrendering a 10-0 run that saw the Bruins steal the game’s momentum going into the break. The Cavaliers, losers of the two teams’ four previous meetings, remembered leading their Conference 7 rivals at halftime on two other occasions this season.
More than that, though, Woodson recalled the predicament it faced in last year’s Northern Region title game. The Cavaliers trailed Wakefield by a seemingly insurmountable 22 points at halftime before pulling off a stunning comeback victory in overtime. This time, the team needed to make sure that didn’t happen again.
“I think last year Wakefield probably doubted us and didn’t think that we were going to come back, and that’s when we started making our run,” said Woodson junior Eric Bowles, who put up a game-high 17 points on Saturday. “This year, we know how Lake Braddock is. We know that you can never, never give up on them. So when they came back within five, we still had to play hard and work to keep the lead up.”
Woodson (21-8) stretched its lead to 15 early in the third quarter, but another Lake Braddock (23-4) run made it 47-42 heading into the final frame. If the Cavaliers were to stave off Lake Braddock’s 14th straight win, they would need to draw from their status as the region’s most seasoned playoff team.
“Our guys played in a lot of big games last year — some really tough environments, big crowds,” Woodson coach Doug Craig said. “Our experience in that situation I thought really helped us tonight. We had some guys that have been through this before.”
In the end Woodson leaned on the same trusty playmaker who had carried them this far in the first place. Bowles struggled to find his touch down the stretch, hitting just four of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter, but his elusiveness against the press and his ability to find the open man kept the Cavaliers ahead for good. The Region Player of the Year wouldn’t let the fate of last month’s conference championship game befall his team again, eventually leading them to a 66-56 victory that gave Woodson its second outright regional title.
The Cavaliers owed much of their triumph to the 19-6 run they made in the opening five minutes of the second quarter. Unaccustomed to playing from behind, Lake Braddock strayed away from its usual brand of dominance in the paint, instead hoisting a barrage of three-pointers in hopes of extinguishing its 17-point deficit. The Bruins, who won the teams’ three previous meetings this season by a combined eight points, didn’t help their cause by missing eight of 10 free throws in the second half.
“This was really the first time we were really able to get a lead and front-run a little bit against them. We had kind of always been playing from behind,” Craig said. “Tonight we stretched the lead out to 15 at one point, and I think that’s a little different because they’re such a big, physical team. When they can keep it close, they can just keep pounding and pounding. We stretched it out and kind of kept them out of character a little bit.”
Woodson’s title defense came as a surprise to some, particularly in light of a midseason stretch that saw the Cavaliers lose four of six conference games. Craig’s team returned just one starter from last year’s 25-win unit, a group that featured eight seniors. Moreover, the Cavs didn’t really have a signature win during the regular season, save perhaps for a 68-64 victory over a quality Robinson squad in December.
“I think we had sort of an underdog mentality,” said senior Andy Stynchula, who dropped 13 points on Saturday. “It gave us some motivation that we had to fight our way in. Some people counted us out, but we’ve got a lot of heart, and we fought.”
Saturday’s celebration served as a welcome distraction for the Woodson High community, which mourned two student deaths last week.
“I think it brought together all the students tonight. There was probably half the school there in the stands,” said senior Mike Szabo, who scored a career-high 13 points in the Cavaliers’ semifinal win against top-ranked Herndon on Friday. “For everybody to be together in a community atmosphere like that and to cheer around the basketball team, that was good for everyone.”
Up next for the Cavaliers is a state semifinal contest against Landstown High, a Virginia Beach team that will make the trip up to Robinson Secondary on Saturday for a 3:30 tipoff. Lake Braddock will face 6A South champion Colonial Forge in Richmond at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Each team will be hunting for its first state title.
“Everybody now is really good,” Craig said. “You have to play your best game every night out, put it out on the floor and hopefully make enough plays to win.”