The James River boys are wading back into familiar waters this week, as they head to the Group A, Division 2 State Basketball Tournament.
This is River’s fourth trip to the state in the past four years, and the Knights feel like they have some unfinished business. It all begins Friday night at the Salem Civic Center when the Knights take on Honaker in an 8:30 tip-off.
Honaker is the runner-up team in Region D. River earned the right to “host” this game when the Knights defeated Radford 64-56 in the Region C, Division 2 championship game at Pulaski County High School on Monday night.
The Knights have been here before. Last year they defeated Radford in the regional final, but then lost to the Bobcats in a heartbreaker in the state semifinal in Richmond, 54-52. River had a 10-point lead with less than five minutes to go but Radford caught up and won the game with a bucket at the buzzer.
Two years ago River lost in the quarterfinals to Gate City at Virginia High, 76-66. Again the Knights led in the second half, but poor foul shooting and some ill-timed technical fouls on River players swung the momentum and Gate City advanced to the semifinals in Richmond.
In 2007 the Knights took a 25-0 record to the state semifinals in Richmond, only to get pounded by a talented Clarke County team, 86-52. Clarke used a 25-5 run to close out the half and end River’s season at 25-1.
Current seniors Ethan Humphries and Patrick Bennett have been starters through all this, and senior Andrew Tucker has been a three-year starter. Coach Mike Goad figures that experience will be a big ace in his hand as the Knights run it up the flag pole for the fourth straight year, hoping to get their first salute.
“They’ve been through a lot in the past four years and that has to be a benefit to us,” said Goad. “They know what to expect. They’ve been there.”
River will take a 25-2 record into Friday’s match-up with Honaker. In the past four years the Knights are 97-12, and this year they beefed up the schedule in hopes of getting some battle experience for the post-season. They played home-and-home games with Cave Spring and Liberty and split both. They also swept two games against Group AA Alleghany.
“I doubt if anyone has played a tougher schedule than we have,” said Goad. “When you go up against teams like Cave Spring and Liberty that gets you ready for anything.”
River drew on that experience Monday in the win over Radford. The Bobcats came out smoking and took a 12-3 lead in the regional final in Dublin, but River knew the game wasn’t over at that point.
“We were down 15-0 against Cave Spring and came back and caught them,” said Goad. “The boys knew that. They weren’t doing anything wrong, Radford was just shooting the ball well. We were getting a hand in their face, but they just made ‘em.”
The Knights were not to be denied, as they cut the lead to four by the end of the first quarter. Then River started knocking them down and the Knights went up 31-26 by the half. Radford hung tough in the third quarter but River finished strong and won the region, 64-56.
“They started out in a triangle-and-two to stop Ethan and Patrick,” said Goad. “But the other kids stepped up. We passed the ball well and played very well as a team. And I want to credit (assistant coach) Chad Neighbors for doing a masterful job with the game film. He was a big factor in that win.”
Meanwhile, Lebanon beat Honaker in the Region D, Division 2 final. Honaker had knocked off top-seeded Gate City in the semifinals, and the Tigers are just 12-13 as they come to Salem Friday.
“I feel pretty confident,” said Goad. “I think our region is a little stronger than Region D at this point.”
Last year at this point River hosted Virginia High, also at the Salem Civic Center, and took a 57-21 win in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The Knights ran the Bearcats into submission on the big Salem Civic Center floor, which is close in size to the big floor at the new James River gym.
“Everyone is surprised at how good a shape we’re in,” said Goad. “Especially since we play five guys for most of the game. Usually it’s the other team that gets tired.”
The Knights lost their starting center for non-basketball related reasons over Christmas, and that forced some others to step up.
“With the added playing time, John Bennett has really improved and Jordan Talbott has stepped up his game,” said Goad. “We’ve been through some adversity this year but the kids have handled it well.”
If River gets by Honaker this Friday, the Knights will play a state semifinal game on Friday, March 12, against the winner of a quarterfinal game between Essex and Dan River. That would be the second game of the day, scheduled for 12:15 p.m. The championship is Saturday, March 13, at 5 p.m. This year Radford is in the opposite bracket of River.
“When you get to this point every pass and every shot is important,” said Goad. “You could sneeze and it could end up costing you the game. But this is what the kids play for all year. This is where you want to be at this time of the season.”
As usual, River’s fans were out in force as the Knights beat Grayson County 72-60 Saturday night and Radford in the regional. Monday night at Pulaski, there were more fans in red and black than there were from Radford, even though Buchanan is much farther from Pulaski than Radford.
“We always get great support from our fans, and that’s been a factor in our success,” said Goad. “We’re back here again and we’re going to give them our best effort. If we don’t win, it won’t be because we didn’t give it all we had. We’ll have no regrets.”