MORAVIAN FALLS - The Rams had been waiting for revenge against Wilkes Central.
After dropping the two regular season matchups by two points each time, Starmount was given another chance to knock off the Eagles in the semifinals of the Mountain Valley Conference tournament.
Central stormed out of the gates behind a deafening home-court advantage and built a 10-point lead in the second quarter before staving off a furious Ram comeback to hold on for a thrilling 70-62 triumph.
“The biggest key is we didn’t make free throws early [22-36 in the game],” Starmount head coach Jeffrey Hague explained. “If we could have made free throws early, it could have been a little different game late. I felt like they played really hard and a lot of the breaks went their way. They got after it and probably beat us on the boards and got most of the 50-50 balls.
“It’s just a tough game to lose, but you’ve got to give us a little credit too for making a real comeback. We were down and our guys never quit. That is one of the things, as far as my team goes, that we’re really proud of,” he added.
In a back-and-forth opening quarter, each team struggled to get anything going offensively and traded buckets throughout.
Fondae McDaniel drilled a three early on to help the Rams open on a 4-0 run, but the Eagles answered right back.
Point guard Dillon Dobson, who missed the final three games of the regular season with concussion-like symptoms, excited the Starmount half of the gym with a two-handed dunk on the baseline with 45 seconds remaining - but was waived off after a travelling call.
But his presence was a welcoming sign for Rams fans.
“He looked a lot more in sync than he did Tuesday night, which is great for us,” Hague said. “We’re still looking to gear up for a playoff run, so we’re going to need him healthy.”
In a fast-paced second quarter of action, the teams combined for 15 points in the opening three minutes as the Eagles took a one-point lead at 21-20.
From there, Central began asserting themselves on the offensive end of the floor.
Sharpshooter Will Cornette drilled three treys in the final three minutes of the half as the Eagles exploded for 27 points in the frame to extend their lead to 10 at 40-30 at the break.
Starmount hung around in the third quarter, keeping the lead at 10 throughout the period and went to the fourth down 55-45.
The lead remained in double-digits as Armin Omanovic hit 1-of-2 free throws at the 4:30 mark, leading to chants of “double digits!” from the Central faithful.
But from that point on, the Rams came to life and pieced together a furious comeback.
“We just started getting more aggressive,” Hague explained. “I thought both crowds got into it. The energy level of the whole game went up and that’s what gave us a chance. We were really active at that point, got a few turnovers and a few things went our way - and that’s the reason we had a chance there at the end.”
Wagoner hit four-straight from the stripe before McDaniel followed suit with two of his own after stealing the ball near mid-court to trim the lead to four at 58-54.
After an Omanovic free throw and a Central turnover, Wagoner hit two more free throw attempts to trim the lead down to three at 59-56 with 3:01 remaining.
The Eagles answered with a pair from the line, but Eugene Billips responded with a hard drive in the lane.
Billips was hooked and drew an intentional foul on a Central defender, sending the senior to the foul stripe for two and giving Starmount the ball.
Billips hit 1-of-2, while Wagoner connected on a hook-shot off the glass on the ensuing inbound to cut the lead to two at 61-59 with 1:38 left to play.
But big-man Christian Triplett responded for the Eagles, converting an ‘and-1’ to push the lead back out to five with 1:22 remaining.
The Rams kept fighting as Dobson was fouled on a drive in the line, hitting 1-of-2 attempts to cut the lead to four at 64-60.
But Starmount’s luck ran out as the Eagles scored the final six points of the contest to fend off the Ram comeback and pull out the 70-62 victory to punch their ticket to the MVAC championship game against Ashe County.
Wagoner once again powered Starmount’s offense with 22 points on the night, while Dobson pitched in 21 in his second game back from injury.
The Rams, who finish as the No. 3 seed among 2A teams in the conference, will return to action with a playoff game tonight. Hague says he has confidence that his team will be able to put this loss behind them and bounce back.
“It’s going to be tough,” Hague said about bouncing back from this loss. “We just have to go back to work and hopefully have good practices and gear up for [tonight]. We just have to do the things that we always teach and want to do. And if we can do that, I think we’ll be fine [tonight]. But with the energy-level of this game, it’s going to be tough to bounce back.
“But I have a lot of confidence in our guys to do it,” he added.