Saturday, March 14, 2015

CHAMPIONS: Henrico Finishes The Journey With The Title....

It was a long, arduous journey, one that did not begin when the Virginia High School League (VHSL) calendar declared that high school basketball would begin practice in November.

"This started last summer," junior swingman Monte Buckingham said.

"This" was practices, hundreds of jumpers and free throws daily, one-on-one battles, and, to blow off steam, the occasional dunk-off. Add to that the loss of not just their gym for most of the season, but even their locker room, and you have the ingredients for creating a battle-tested team.

The final battle, for the Henrico Warriors, was won in convincing fashion, Saturday at the Siegel Center as the team jumped to an early lead, then kept the Norview Pilots at bay for a 78-64 win to capture their second state championship in three seasons.

The 2013 Warriors won the final Group AAA championship in the old VHSL format defeating John Marshall. Last year's team fell twelve points short against Potomac. This year's crew, beginning with the second overtime against L.C. Bird in the 5A South Region Semifinal, showed they would not be denied.

Head Coach Vance Harmon, when asked to compare the two championship teams, lauded each team's accomplishments, and rightfully so. They were different, and special in their own right. This team, six members of which surrounded him at the post-game press conference, will be remembered for many things.

They begin with overcoming adversity. Routine, even superstition, can be an important part of in-season life for players in any sport, at any level. With your gym going through renovations, playing your first sixteen games, including your own holiday tournament, on the road, not even having a locker room to call your own, can become a recipe for either distraction or motivation. That was the conundrum Harmon faced in November.

"One of our messages was, you can use this as an excuse, and if you want an excuse, you've got one right now, or you can look at it as a reason to come closer together and to deal with some obstacles," Harmon said.

The Warriors didn't back away. They began the season 10-0 before running into defending 6A state champion Colonial Forge, who repeated with that title Saturday night, in the finals of the Henrico Holiday Hoops Tournament. Without point guard Gus Rowland, the Warriors fought valiantly, but ran out of time, falling 68-67 after a Buckingham three-pointer went in with three seconds left, Colonial Forge allowing the clock to expire when the Warriors were out of timeouts.

They next had to travel to the Virginia Preps Classic the following Saturday to christen 2015 against the Pilots. They were down double-digits at halftime. They rallied, won 66-64, and began an eighteen-game winning streak that ended, for now, with hoisting the 5A Title trophy.

"We made it look easy, but it wasn't easy," explained Walter Williams, arguably the MVP of the playoff run for Henrico. "The season speaks for itself. We came up short against Colonial Forge, but I think that loss helped us become as good as we are now. Without that loss, we would have become big-headed and probably wouldn't have gotten as far as we have."

As for the championship game, it was Williams who seized control, scoring 12 of his game-high 23 points in the first quarter as the Warriors took a 25-12 lead, forcing eight Pilot turnovers. Three minutes later, Williams went viral, unleashing a reverse jam that blew the lid off the Siegel Center to up the lead to 23 at 37-14.

But the Warriors went cold for the rest of the half, scoring just two points, seemingly stuck at 39 points forever. It was 39-20 at halftime, a comfortable margin, but knowledgeable Henrico fans, and the coaching staff, remembered January 3rd, where the tables were turned, and the Warriors were down by fourteen at the break to the Pilots.

Enter Gus Rowland. The junior steadied the ship from the point, scoring eight points in the first 4:41 of the third quarter to help maintain the nineteen-point lead. A key play was when senior Tristan Bazemore zipped a pass to an open Rowland down the court for two. Bazemore received high praise from Harmon for his important role this season.

"He wanted to be the point guard, but I told him his skills, for our team, would be best utilized as a sixth man," Harmon remembered. "To Baze's credit, he accepted that, he put team before self and said he'd do what it takes to get here."

The fourth quarter was simply a matter of keeping the Pilots from mounting a final comeback. Williams withstood one-on-one defensive pressure, blew by a defender and got a three-point play the old-fashioned way with 3:08 left for a twelve-point lead. Two minutes later, Buckingham in transition, took the ball, and threw it deftly off the glass, as Williams crashed inside to take it and slam it home one final time in a Warrior uniform. The celebration was underway.

It was a celebration muted by a veteran team, a team with a mission. In the end, as many thought, their biggest challenge to a championship came across the river from L.C. Bird, who led late but eventually fell short, 111-99 in the 5A South Region Semifinals. Some at VCU today thought the Warriors and Skyhawks should have been the title game matchup.

But when it mattered most, all the disruptions, all the noise from opposing student sections, all the Bird/Henrico hype on social media all season, fed these Warriors to get better, day after day, with the singular goal of hoisting another trophy.

Harmon looked back at the final three-game stretch, beginning with the second win over Norview for the 5A South title.

"We took it as a statement game, trying to make a statement to the region and the state that this was our tournament to lose," Harmon explained. "The guys will tell you, we believed once we entered the final four, and you can ask them to a person, we felt there was only one team that could truly beat us."

Immediately, the six assembled Warriors all stated in unison: "Ourselves".

They didn't beat themselves. And no one else could come close to beating them either.

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