Whatever the drawbacks of the Virginia High School League's soon-to-be-extinct conferences, they often afford struggling programs the opportunity to play for big postseason stakes.
Warhill High earned such a chance by rallying to win 79-73 in overtime at Poquoson on Tuesday in the first round of the Conference 25 boys basketball tournament.
Despite a difficult regular season, the No. 5-seeded Lions (5-15) will play for a 3A East Region tournament berth on Thursday, when they travel to top-seeded Southampton in the semifinals. Regional qualification would be huge for a program that finished ninth in the 10-team Bay Rivers District, but forward Jimmel Davis is dreaming even bigger.
"Our basketball team hasn't been to the regionals in quite awhile, so it would mean everything in the world to make it," said Davis, a 6-foot-5 senior who led the Lions with 30 points at Poquoson. "But we're planning on nothing less than a conference championship."
With heavy favorite Park View of South Hill not in the bracket because the Mecklenburg County School board canceled its season when Dragons' players and fans were involved in a fight at a tournament in December, Warhill figures to have as much of a shot at advancing to the regional as the other four teams. Nonetheless, it took an impressive rally late in regulation to keep the hope alive.
The Lions trailed 63-53 with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter when they closed out regulation with a 12-2 run to force overtime. Davis' encouragement and four of the first eight points in the run were key.
"I was thinking that I'm a senior, so I told my teammates that this was not our last game," he said. "Our intensity went through the roof and I felt that nothing but victory would come from that."
That intensity was most evident on a defense that featured a small but crucial defensive adjustment. Lions coach Geoff McCulloch moved the 3-2 zone close to half-court to pressure the Islanders.
"That made us catch the ball in the wrong spots," Poquoson coach Erik Johnson said. "(Jermaine) Rosario did a great job in that defense for them.
"That kid is really underrated."
Rosario began the Lions 12-point run with a steal and two free throws, and set up another basket with a steal. The Lions, who trailed most of the game, took a 65-63 lead on two free throws by Dcarius Brooks (15 points) with 37.9 seconds to play.
Tucker Schuhart (13 points) pulled Poquoson even at 65-apiece by making two free throws with 23.2 seconds remaining. After a shot by Warhill's Juan Spence rimmed out with 12 seconds to play, J.D. Costulis (31 points) missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would've given Poquoson the win.
"I think we just got a little tired at the end of regulation and in overtime," Costulis said.
That was hard to argue after the Lions finished the extra period with an 8-2 run to seal the victory. Brooks' layup that circled the rim twice before dropping gave the Lions a 73-71 lead with 52 seconds to go in overtime.
After Rosario forced a Poquoson turnover, Spence scored on a three-point play to assure the Lions' passage to the regional semifinals.
"We get to game-plan again and practice tomorrow," McCulloch said. "That's what it's all about."
After leading by as many as 12 points in the first half, the Islanders do not.
Their one consolation was that Roanoke College-bound guard Costulis surpassed 1,000 points for his career.
"I'd rather have gotten the win, but I'll definitely take the 1,000," Costulis said. "It's been a goal of mine since I was young."
WARHILL 79, POQUOSON 73 (overtime)
WARHILL (5-15): Spence 9, Brooks 15, Stovall 8, James 5, Davis 30, Rosario 10, Brungot 2. Totals 27 18-29 79
POQUOSON (7-16): Costulis 31, Erb 4, Calloway 2, Doggett 7, Schuhart 13, Johnson 4, McDevitt 12. Totals 29 12-18 73
3-point goals: Warhill 7 (Davis 4, Stovall 2, Brooks), Poquoson 3 (Costulis 3).
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963