MARTINSBURG - If veteran Central High School boys basketball coach Reggie Nevins had compiled any kind of a Christmas wish list entering Monday night's game with Mountain League rival Tyrone, his Scarlet Dragons came pretty darned close to filling it.
Central started strong and finished with a flurry on its own floor, using several big fourth-quarter performances to score a thrilling 56-52 victory over a Tyrone team that may well be the league's best.
Senior guard Austin Cunningham, making his season debut on the basketball floor after suffering a football-related stress fracture above his right ankle, scored 13 points and played a solid floor game.
Junior Alex Lafferty punctuated his game-high 15-point performance with six clutch free throws in six attempts as Central passed a gut-check down the stretch.
Senior Zach Slagenweit chipped in 14 points, including a big 3-pointer that tied the game and another field goal that pulled Central into a three-point lead.
Senior Lucas Patterson helped Central get the upper hand early by scoring 10 points before leaving the game with a forearm injury late in the third quarter - the only negative event of the night for Central, which improved to 3-3 overall and 2-2 in the league.
"This was a nice team victory,'' Nevins said. "[Tyrone] is an excellent team - I think they're the best team in our league, and we had to really step it up here.''
Central got off to an early 13-4 lead behind Lafferty's two first-quarter 3-pointers, and led by as many as eight points (32-24) early in the second half before Tyrone (5-2 overall, 3-1 Mountain League) staged a comeback.
"They're as good a team as there is around, and we knew they would make a run at us,'' Nevins said. "But we stepped up and hit a couple clutch shots.''
Several, as a matter of fact, in the fourth quarter.
After Dalton McKeehen's baseline jumper and Erik Wagner's pull-up field goal from the key staked Tyrone to a 46-43 lead, Slagenweit drained a big 3-pointer from the upper left circle to tie the game, 46-46.
Senior Trevor Forshey turned an all-out hustle play into a rebound bucket off his own missed shot to give Central a 48-46 edge moments later.
"Slagenweit hit that big '3' and Forshey got that big rebound, and both were key baskets,'' Nevins said.
After junior Tristan Lingafelt's free throw pulled Tyrone to within 48-47, Slagenweit's short runner gave Central a 50-47 lead with 1:24 remaining.
Sophomore Anthony Politza's putback moved Tyrone to within 50-49, but Lafferty proceeded to hit four straight free throws after being fouled on Tyrone's next two possessions to give the Dragons a 54-49 edge with 19 seconds left.
"Lafferty had six straight free throws at the end,'' Nevins said of the Central junior, who also hit a pair of foul shots in the waning seconds. "He had a solid game playing in a pressure environment before a big crowd tonight.''
Lafferty knew the free-throw situations were important, and responded accordingly.
"I just tried to step up and nail them,'' he said. "This is a big win for us, because [Tyrone] is a rival.''
Nevins and Central used a triangle-and-two defense in an attempt to neutralize Tyrone's two outstanding senior guards, Brandon Gripp and Jordan Miller. For the most part, it worked. Both players shared team-scoring honors with 13 points, but Central did an effective job of harnessing Tyrone's high-powered offense.
"We were just trying to limit the looks for their two big scorers,'' Nevins said. "We played a gimmick defense tonight, and it was generally effective.''
Tyrone didn't rebound well in the fourth quarter, a fact that left Golden Eagles' coach George Gripp feeling irked.
"When we got the 3-point lead, we couldn't get a rebound on defense,'' he said. "They had two separate possessions where they got three shots off. That can't happen. That's frustrating.''
Cunningham, who quarterbacked the Central football team to a District 6-AA championship this past fall, thought the Scarlet Dragons rebounded well as a team Monday.
"I thought that we played really hard on defense, and did a good job of rebounding and getting fast-break points off our rebounds,'' he said.
Game notes: Brandon Gripp and Miller had six rebounds apiece for Tyrone, while Cunningham grabbed six boards for Central ... Both teams are involved in Christmas holiday tournaments this weekend. Tyrone hosts the Northern Blair Kiwanis Tournament Friday and Saturday, while Central participates in the Williamsburg Holiday Tournament Thursday and Friday.
TYRONE (52): Gripp 4 3-3 13, Lingafelt 1 2-4 5, Politza 3 1-2 7, Miller 6 0-0 13, Wagner 2 1-2 5, McKeehen 2 2-2 6, Brooks 1 0-0 3. Totals - 19 9-13 52.
CENTRAL (56): Cunningham 3 6-8 13, Forshey 1 0-0 2, Slagenweit 5 2-2 14, Lafferty 3 6-6 15, Patterson 5 0-0 10, Volkommer 0 0-0 0, Mills 1 0-0 2, Brumbaugh 0 0-0 0. Totals - 18 14-16 56.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Tyrone12 12 14 14 - 52
Central18 12 11 15 - 56
3-point goals: Tyrone 5 (Gripp 2, Lingafelt, Miller, Brooks); Central 6 (Lafferty 3, Slagenweit 2, Cunningham).
Records: Tyrone (5-2 overall, 3-1 in the Mountain League); Central (3-3 overall, 2-2 in the Mountain League).
JV: Tyrone, 49-35. High scorers-Z. Soellner, T, 16; Volkommer, C, 10.
Officials: Dick Wagner, Dave Baronner, Skip Dry.