The James River boys were knocking on the door of a state championship for the past three years, and last weekend they finally kicked it in. River won the school’s first ever basketball state championship with two dramatic wins at the Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
The two wins concluded River’s season at 28-2 and gave the Knights a four-year record of 100-12. Seniors Ethan Humphries and Patrick Bennett have been four-year starters over that span, and they flanked coach Mike Goad behind the Group A, Division 2 trophy at Saturday evening’s post-game press conference.
“When it was over all the hard work we’d put in over the past four years all came rushing back to me,” said Humphries, River’s floor leader at point guard. “This made it all worthwhile.”
Bennett, who will attend Virginia Tech next year, played his last game of school ball. He was River’s leading scorer in both games, a 52-50 overtime win over Dan River on Friday and a 47-43 win over Buckingham in the championship game Saturday.
“We have so many good memories over the past four years,” said Bennett. “I’ve been able to play with my friends and have a great time, and it was exciting to be able to finish it off.”
If not for Bennett’s block at the end of regulation Friday, none of this would have happened. With the score tied at 44-44, Dan River had the ball with the clock winding down. Raymond Hairston took a shot with four seconds left and missed, and Kevin Eldridge of Dan River grabbed the rebound. His follow up shot was blocked by Bennett at the buzzer, forcing overtime.
In the overtime period, River took a 49-48 lead with 1:06 on the clock, as John Bennett scored off an assist from Humphries. River would not trail again. Jordan Talbott hit one of two free throws to make it a two-point lead, then stole the ball and was fouled. He made one of two again to make the score 51-48, and when Dan River’s R.J. Myers tipped in a missed shot with nine seconds left River was still up one. Patrick Bennett was fouled, made one of two, and Dan River couldn’t get off a final shot.
Patrick Bennett led River with 19 points on five for eight shooting and also had a team-high nine rebounds. River was out-rebounded for the game, 39-32, but the Knights shot 42 percent and held Dan River to just 33 percent, and that was the difference.
Talbott had 11 points in the semifinal and John Bennett had 10. Humphries had seven points and seven assists and Andrew Tucker had five points. Jordan Brogan was the only substitute in the game for River, and he played just one minute.
In the other semifinal, Buckingham defeated Lebanon, 42-39, to set up an “All Knights” final on Saturday. It was River’s first trip to the state final since 1990 and only the third time ever. River lost to Fluvanna in 1990 and to Luray in the 1978 state final, with John Shotwell on the end of the bench for River both times. A smiling Shotwell was in the crowd Saturday to watch the Knights finally bring home the bacon. In fact, most of Buchanan was there.
“I can’t tell you how much the community support has helped this team,” said coach Mike Goad. “Everywhere we went, whether it was at Cave Spring or at Pulaski to play Radford or at the Salem Civic Center or here in Richmond, we had the bigger crowd. This was a real community effort. You had young kids out here and you had elderly people. You had faculty, administrators, cafeteria workers– everyone from the local farmers to the bank presidents were here to support us.”
River got off to a great start Saturday and threatened to blow the game wide open in the early going. The Knights shot 63 percent in the first half and led by as many as 12 points at 30-18 with two minutes left in the half. River went into the locker room up 32-23 and appeared to have the game under control.
But Buckingham wasn’t going to go down without a fight. The B-Knights outscored River 12-2 in the third quarter to take a 35-34 lead. River went from 6:05 of the third period to 2:53 of the fourth without a point, a span of over 11 minutes of clock time, without scoring. Several times the ball went in and popped out, or rimmed out without dropping.
“It was a panic situation, but we didn’t panic,” said Goad. “Patrick had one that just wouldn’t drop, then Ethan had one rim out and John had a lay up blocked. The thing is, all that time we were playing great defense on the other end, taking charges and contending their shots as best we could.”
The score remained at 35-34, in Buckingham’s favor, from the 3:23 mark of the third period to the 3:40 mark of the fourth, when Taylor Boyers of Buckingham hit a three-pointer to put River down 38-34. The four-point lead was the largest of the game for Buckingham, and when Humphries missed a quick three at the other end the River fans were getting nervous.
But the Knights were through these wars before, and they came up big. Humphries hit a driving lay up to cut the lead to 38-36, and after a turnover at the other end Patrick Bennett was fouled. He made one of two to cut the lead to one. River then held on the other end and Humphries hit a three with 1:08 on the clock to give the Knights a 40-38 lead.
River didn’t trail again, as the Knights hit their foul shots down the stretch. Talbott hit two with 43 seconds left, Humphries hit two with 21 seconds left, and Andrew Tucker hit three of four in the final 12 seconds to nail down the state championship. As the final horn sounded the Knights celebrated on the floor to a roar from behind their bench.
Bennett finished with 15 points, Talbott had 14, and Humphries had 13 points and seven more assists. Patrick Bennett had eight rebounds and the five-man lineup, including Tucker and John Bennett, played the entire 36 minutes.
“Credit their mental toughness,” said Goad. “They’ve done that before. We had a stretch of six games in nine days and we’ve had back-to-back games before. Everyone’s tired at that point and talent will take you just so far. Our mental toughness was the difference.”
The Knights were the kings of the county Monday as they returned to school triumphantly. Now the “banquet circuit” begins, which is a far cry from the past three years, when the Knights twice went to the semifinals and were disappointed. Last year was especially tough to take, losing to Radford on a last-second shot.
“After the loss we had last year we felt like we had to make amends,” said Goad. “We had to finish what we thought we should have taken care of last year.”
Easier said than done.
“It’s not easy, a lot of things have to go your way,” Goad continued. “You have those intangibles like the flu and injuries. We had a little adversity this year, but we didn’t change our expectations and some kids stepped up for us. That’s where mental toughness comes in.”
After the game the players gave their state medals to the managers and trainers in an unprecedented show of appreciation for the support staff. Time will pass, but March 13, 2010, will stand still for the rest of time for the members of this team and community.
“It’s a great feeling, walking around like a champion,” said Goad. “Not everyone gets the opportunity to experience this, and you don’t know if it will ever come around again. I told the boys this is a moment we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”