WINCHESTER — For the entirety of Tuesday’s Region 4C semifinal game, the Handley boys’ basketball team’s bench kept chanting the same thing.
“Defense, clap, clap, defense. Defense, clap, clap defense.”
And the Judges got exactly that.
Handley held Dominion to 23 percent shooting and forced 13 turnovers in a 55-37 triumph. The Judges will next face Loudoun County (15-2) at Maddex-Omps Gymnasium in a contest scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday. The Dulles District champion Captains buried Northwestern District runner-up Culpeper County 68-22 on Thursday in the other regional semifinal.
The Judges got a game-high 26 points from Demitri Gardner on a night where points were hard to come by.
Handley especially made it tough on the Titans (10-5), who could not find an answer for the Judges’ harassing man-to-man defense.
“Stops were the biggest thing we had today,” said Gardner, who helped break the game open with a pair of 3-pointers in the third quarter. “The intensity with the defense was really there.”
And the exhortations from the sideline were there, too. In a season in which no crowds are allowed, Gardner said the bench has become very important.
“When the bench is dialed in, the intensity is going,” Gardner said. “You’ve got to think that we don’t have the fans here this year. That’s where all the noise comes from, so we have to make our own noise. That’s where the energy and intensity comes from.”
From the start, it became evident that buckets were going to come at a premium. Halfway through the first quarter, Dominion led 4-2.
Emerson Fusco’s 3-point play with 3:46 left in the period gave Handley the lead for good at 5-4. Both team’s went a combined 10 for 30 as the Judges led 13-10 after eight minutes.
The basket got even smaller in the second quarter. Gardner’s 3-point play was the lone basket for more than four minutes. The contest was still tight, but Isaac Menefee’s 3-pointer extended the Handley lead to 23-16 at the break.
The halftime total was vastly different from the 51 points the Judges put up in a 101-60 win against Culpeper County in the Class 4 Northwestern District title game. A lot of that had to do with the Titans’ 2-3 zone, which took advantage of their length.
“Dominion is a really good team,” Gardner said. “They had a strong defense that was really hard to drive and shoot because right when you got the ball they were there.”
The Titans also were able to keep the Judges from playing at the fast pace they like.
“They sent four guys back on floor balance every time a shot went up,” Handley coach Zach Harrell said of the Titans. “They didn’t get a lot of offensive rebounds on us because of that, but when we got the ball they were already back and set up. We found a way to get some turnovers and quick stops to get some transition going throughout the game, but they were definitely committed to getting back and getting set up.”
But the Judges made an adjustment at halftime and it paid off with back-to-back 3-pointers to open the second half. to push the lead to 29-16. Handley led by at least 10 the rest of the way.
“Big time players make big-time plays,” Harrell said of Gardner. “That’s what that young man did. We needed a bucket at that point.”
Handley’s lead grew as large as 37-21 in the quarter and the Judges led 39-24 entering the final period.
Dominion could never recover as the finished the contest 14 of 61 from the floor.
“Things are starting to come together,” Harrell said. “I was amazed at the defensive effort tonight. Obviously there’s some things to work on and there always is, but I was just really impressed with how we dialed in to the scouting report and guarded them because they are a very good team.”
Chaz Lattimore and Fusco added nine points each for the Judges. Justin Mann had 10 to lead Dominion.
The Judges, one of the final eight teams left in the state, now face Loudoun County which has won 15 straight since losing its first two games.
“I’ve watched them so many times, I think I’m starting to know some of their stuff better than ours,” Harrell said of the Captains. “They are a very, very good team.”
Gardner said the Judges will be prepared.
“We’ve got to be dialed in. We’ve got to be dialed in right here,” Gardner said, pointing to his head. “If you are mentally prepared, you will be physically prepared.”