Far, far removed from the big stage of the Siegel Center, where the Henrico Warriors now expect to be come the second week of March, there is the old gym at Virginia Randolph High School near the intersection of Mountain and Woodman Roads.
Due to renovations to their gym at Henrico, the Warriors practiced many times at Virginia Randolph, a gym so old the backboards are wooden. Straight out of 'Hoosiers' according to Warriors head coach Vance Harmon.
It was there where the seeds were planted for what is now a 27-1 season, which culminates Saturday when Henrico plays for its second state championship in three seasons. Taking one step closer to erasing the bitter memory of falling the title game a year ago, the Warriors cruised to a 96-70 victory over Freedom in the 5A State Semifinal Thursday night.
For Henrico, even with standout players such as Monte Buckingham, who had a triple-double with 24 points, 14 rebounds and ten assists, and Walter Williams, whose postseason tear continued with a game-high 28 points and five rebounds, senior Ryan Pearson will tell you, it's all about the team.
"With us, you make sure you hold yourself accountable, and hold everyone else accountable," Pearson said after the game. "Towards the end of the year, we've talked about how, in big games, we've already won the game, in that we have to go out and show we won it in the offseason, in practice, you know, working hard and pushing each other. What we've done well the past few weeks is hold each other accountable and not take it personally."
Henrico held Freedom accountable from the opening tip, running off eleven points in the first 99 seconds. Just 3:18 into the game, Freedom found itself down 14-2. They caught fire late in the quarter, hitting four consecutive three-point shots, and, after eight minutes, the Warriors lead was just six at 27-21, even though it seemed they had dominated.
Then Freedom's offense disappeared. They didn't score a field goal until there was 2:29 left in the half. The Warriors, however, hadn't continued their offensive pace, and the lead, which could have been much bigger, was just 16. Harmon liberally used his bench to keep legs fresh. By halftime, it was 18 at 50-32.
Williams scored 13 in the first half, 15 more after the break. Buckingham was productive throughout the game as well, with 11 before halftime, 13 afterwards. Jamal Newton added ten, as the Warriors were never threatened in the second half. The biggest drama was saved for how many dunks Williams would have and whether Henrico would break the century mark again.
In his final game for Freedom, Frank Ageymang scored 26 points, while Alexander Ruffin added 18. But the Eagles committed 27 turnovers, many due to the constant, withering pressure Henrico brings to all 94 feet every moment of every game.
This is Henrico's third straight state championship berth. They won the final Group AAA title in 2013, 72-48 over John Marshall, then fell in the inaugural 5A State Final to Potomac last March, 54-42.
When the Warriors won it all two years ago, Walter Williams was handing out water behind the bench. Now the senior is handing out offense at a pace that has many thinking Division II Virginia State of the CIAA got a steal with his commitment collegiately to the Trojans.
But Williams, Buckingham, and everyone else have "paid their dues" to become part of one of the most successful basketball programs in Virginia this decade.
"Our young guys have strong right shoulders, because you'll see them carrying the dirty laundry, whether coming into the gym or out. It's a rite of passage. They go get the loose balls in practice," Harmon explained. "We always say 'trust the system, trust the process', and the guys understand that this is about paying it forward."
For Williams, Pearson, Marquis Johnson and Tristan Bazemore, their final deposit into the Bank of Henrico comes Saturday. They hope to leave the Siegel Center one final time as Warriors with a receipt marked "paid in full".
NOTES: Henrico faces Norview for the 5A State Championship Saturday at 2pm. This is the third meeting between the teams this season. The Warriors came from behind to beat Norview 66-64 on January 3rd to begin their current 17-game winning streak, and knocked them off 85-68 last Friday in the 4A South Region Championship. Both games were played in Hampton Roads. Tickets are $10, and doors open at 9am at Siegel Center...The Warriors have scored at least 80 points in five of their six playoff wins.