RICHMOND — With Tuesday marking his team’s fourth consecutive trip to the Virginia AA Division 4 state semifinals, Potomac Falls Coach Jeff Hawes has encountered just about every situation during this journey. He’s seen resilience, a trait that helped this year’s Panthers overcome a 5-3 start. Hawes also has enjoyed his share of winning streaks, like the 17 straight victories that positioned the Panthers for a third state title in four years. And even when the Panthers jumped out to a 2-0 lead before tipoff thanks to a Salem uniform violation and subsequent technical foul, Hawes could only laugh as he thought back to the first time it happened two years ago.
What Hawes hadn’t seen, at least out of this year’s Panthers, was the defensive struggles that led them to surrender a season-high in points to Salem during a 76-69 loss at VCU’s Siegel Center.
“I’m not sure we played the best defense tonight,” Hawes said. “We weren’t rotating in the middle and defending like we normally do.”
The game’s abnormal start stemmed from Salem’s jersey color. As the home team, the Spartans were required to wear white uniforms — not the gray ones they packed for the trip to Richmond.
Salem guard Troy Mann (26 points) pushed to make up for this deficit, scoring six points during a back-and-forth first quarter. But the Panthers remained in control, thanks to a 7-1 run punctuated by a Deandre Thomas three-pointer.
After Salem’s John Repass drained a three to give the Spartans their first lead midway through the second quarter, the Panthers quickly responded. Thomas and D’Shawn Shorts nailed two more threes to push the Panthers back out ahead of Salem, 33-30. Thomas proved to be a key for Potomac Falls, scoring 17 points off the bench.
But while the Panthers found some success from three, the Spartans seemed to be hitting from everywhere. Riding execution that saw them shoot nearly 56 percent for the night and outscore Potomac Falls 38-18 in the paint, Salem stormed ahead in the third. Will Pratt scored nine points on three-pointers, helping the Spartans open up a 15-3 run and build a 54-46 lead after three quarters.
Potomac Falls began the final period with five straight points, and following two Wanya Allen (17 points) free throws, the Panthers again tied the game at 58.
“At that point, I thought we were good,” Hawes said. “I thought we would find a way to get it done, but Salem made some big shots.”
Most of those shots came at the foul line, with the Spartans connecting on 13 of their 14 free-throw attempts to knock Potomac Falls out of the state tournament.
“It [stinks] to end the season like this, but we had another great year and I know these guys will do good in the future,” Shorts said of a team that returns three of its top four scorers.