Spotswood’s late rally earns Blazers final Conference 29 championship

PENN LAIRD — In its four years of existence, the Conference 29 boys basketball tournament crowned one champion.

Spotswood is the only one who can lay claim to that achievement, and in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win over Western Albemarle the SHS seniors undoubtedly earned that right.

James Sullivan drained a trio of 3s, Cameron Irvine hit two field goals and Aaron Hunter sank three key free throws as the Trailblazers staged a fourth-quarter rally and defeated Western Albemarle, 53-48, in the Conference 29 tournament championship game for the fourth straight season.

“It feels good. It feels good to have a trophy,” said Sullivan, who poured in 11 of his game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter. “It was a fun environment and I’m glad we came out on top. It was just a resilient effort on all of our parts, just to stick to the game plan and stay tough on D, then take shots that came to us and make them down the stretch.”

By again taking the Conference 29 tournament — which will be no more next school year, when the Virginia High School League’s new alignment plan does away with conferences — Spotswood (21-4) was set to be at home Tuesday in the 3A West Region quarterfinals, when it faced Blacksburg (results were unavailable at presstime Tuesday afternoon). A Blazers win over Blacksburg would guide them to their fifth consecutive state tournament and eighth in nine seasons.

“Proud of the defensive effort,” Spotswood coach Chad Edwards said.

“Offensively, it was not pretty and I think the main reason was Western plays really good defense. They deserve a lot of credit and there’s a reason they’re seemingly here every here, win 20 games every year.”

The second-seeded Warriors built an 8-0 lead to begin Saturday’s game, and erased a 20-18 halftime deficit to go up by 10 points midway through the third quarter. Spotswood sophomore guard Kaleb Strawderman tallied five of his 12 points late in the third to help SHS close the gap to six entering the fourth quarter.

“I love the confidence and almost the exuberance that he plays with,” Edwards said. “It’s exactly what we needed tonight. We needed an offensive boost and he was there to answer the bell.”

As the top-seeded Blazers locked down the Warriors defensively early in the fourth, Irvine followed two of Sullivan’s 3s with a go-ahead triple of his own. Western senior Austin Cress tied the game on the next possession, but Sullivan canned a pull-up 3 from the top of the key for a 45-42 lead with 3:15 remaining.

An Irvine layup extended the lead to 47-42 with 2:47 left, and Sullivan and Hunter combined to make 5-of-6 free throws in the final minute to seal the win. Sullivan also intercepted a Warriors pass in the final two minutes when the Blazers were ahead by three.

“On the offensive side, we didn’t have a great shooting night, but found a way to get it done,” said Irvine, who has been at the varsity level for all four of Spotswood’s C-29 championships with forward Jared Morris. “We hit some 3s and free throws when it counted, so it was just kind of a grindit- out win.”

Spotswood held Western Albemarle senior Ryan Ingram, an all-state guard, to just two first-half points and a Warriors-high 11 for the game. The Blazers repeatedly double-teamed the 6-foot point guard and did so at various times, forcing him to give up the ball early in possessions and daring WAHS’s other options to score.

Ingram said the Warriors hadn’t seen a strategy like that before and it took them out of an offensive rhythm in the first half. Edwards said it was the first time all season he designed such a game plan for an opposing player and was pleased with how his team executed it.

“We’re adding to our arsenal of the things that we can do,” Edwards said.

Spotswood junior center Dan Ouderkirk finished with eight points and 10 rebounds, helping the Blazers to a 31-20 advantage on the boards.

Western Albemarle (20-5) will travel to Hidden Valley for a 3A West Region quarterfinal matchup Tuesday.

“We played well enough to win tonight. We weren’t allowed to do that, but we played well enough to win tonight,” Warriors coach Darren Maynard said. “… A 10-1 foul discrepancy in the second half pretty much covers it. I don’t even know what to say about it. We shot four free throws and they shot [28] in a nip-and-tuck, back-and-forth game. That’s mind-boggling to me.”

The Blazers sank 19-of-28 from the free-throw line for the game, including 15-for-21 in the second half.

Next up for SHS is Blacksburg (13-12), whose football team in the fall entered the postseason 5-5 and improbably went on to win the 3A state championship.

“In reading some of the articles and tracking Blacksburg throughout the season, they’re on an uptick and their rallying cry is ‘Hey, football did it; now we can do it,’” Edwards said. “So it’s a group of guys that knows how to win and they play with a lot of confi dence right now, and this time of year we know it’s going to be a quality team and we need to be ready to play.”

WA (48): Ingram 4 2-2 11, Rampini 3 0-0 7, Cress 5 0-0 10, Coffman 3 0-0 6, Strickland 4 0-2 8, McGahren 1 0-0 3, Mangrum 1 0-0 3. Totals 21 2-4 48.
S (53): A. Hunter 0 5-6 5, Dofflemyer 1 0-0 2, Sullivan 7 2-2 19, Strawderman 2 8-11 12, Irvine 2 2-7 7, Ouderkirk 3 2-2 8. Totals 15 19-28 53.
WA 11 7 20 10 — 48
S 6 14 12 21 — 53
3-point goals — WA 4 (Ingram, Mangrum, McGahren, Rampini); S 4 (Sullivan 3, Irvine).

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