Monday, March 12, 2007

SPORTS >>Riverview matches with Hughes better than many realize

Leader staff editor

Three days of championship basketball will close Saturday night with one of the least known teams in the tournament taking on a perennial contender when the Riverview Raiders challenge the Hughes Blue Devils in the Class 3A state championship game at 7:45 p.m. at the Summit Convention Center in Hot Springs.

Hughes is considered a preseason contender for the title every year, while Riverview is one of those schools people are pretty sure they’ve heard of, but couldn’t quite locate on a map.

The Judsonia-Kensett consolidated school on the outskirts of Searcy has made a name for itself recently, but still faces a heavy favorite in the Kevin Brown led Blue Devils, who are 26-4 on the season.

Hughes has not lost to a 3A team this year. Three of their losses have been at the hands of Class 6A semifinalists, including two to finalist Jonesboro. The other two losses were to Jacksonville in the Red Devil Classic, and to Earle, a heated rival who advanced to the Class 2A state semifinals last week.

Riverview is 26-8 against tough competition, but not quite as tough as the non-conference schedule the Blue Devils played. Don’t expect to hear any Blue Devils bragging about being the favorites.

“We really try to discount that,” Hughes coach Jason Carmichael said. “I don’t feel as though we’re the favorites in any way. We do have some size that could benefit us, but their perimeter strength is what we’re going to have trouble matching. Bo Banks is like greased lightning out there, and they have some other pretty quick guards that could give us some trouble. We were at a big size disadvantage when we won it back in 2001 too, so we know that can be overcome.”

The Raiders are aware that the Hughes program has more experience in the postseason, but doesn’t believe it’s as big a factor as some may indicate.

“They definitely have a lot of tradition,” Riverview coach Danny Starkey said. “You’d have to give them the advantage as far as experience in games like this. None of the ones they have now have been here, so maybe it’s not as much as people think.”
Some have reduced the game to a battle between Brown and Riverview leading scorer Tony Hall. Starkey and the rest of the Raiders are quick to point out that might be a mistake.

“We’ve had games where teams have done great job on Tony, and still found a way to win,” Starkey said. “I’ll tell you something else, they’ve got a couple of players that you have to stay aware of besides Brown too. If they were to try to key totally on Tony, I’d feel pretty good actually.”

Starkey probably won’t feel good because Carmichael is concerned about a great deal more than Hall.

“Rose Bud did a great job on Hall and I talked to coach Taylor about it,” Carmichael said. “You’d think you hold him to nine points you’re going to win. But as I look at some of their other box scores. You have Banks step up in one game and score 17. They play the same team a month later, he only shoots the ball once and doesn’t score at all, they still win the game. Riverview is not a team that’s easy to prepare for. “

“In fact, I think I’d much rather be preparing for Shiloh this week. They probably have more talent than anyone in our classification, but you pretty much know what they’re going to do. Riverview isn’t that way. Coach Starkey does a great job of customizing his game plans for specific matchups. It’s a very difficult team to prepare for.”

The rest of the players are keenly aware of the advantage their opponent will have in the size department, but aren’t intimidated by it.

“Their size is definitely a factor for them,” junior Josiah Overstreet said. “They’re definitely one of the biggest teams we’ve faced, but I’m not going to say it’s the best team we’ve faced. We’ve played a pretty tough schedule. It’s one of the best teams, but I’m not going to say the best.”

Forward LaMarcus Banks recalled facing the Blue Devils in a team camp over the summer. Hughes won that game by one point, but Banks feels it proves his team isn’t that much of an underdog.

“That was a long time ago and I know we’re much better than we were,” Banks said. “They’re probably better too, but I think we proved we can compete with them in that game.”

Sophomore guard Ben Jones, who has seen his playing time increase dramatically in the latter part of the season, has a firm grip on what his team will have to do to bring home the state title.

“They’re big and athletic,” Jones said. “It’s probably the biggest team we’ve played, so we’re going to have to play smart and take care of the ball.”

Underdog is a role the Raiders have relished recently, but while many people may be counting Riverview out, the Blue Devils have enough experience as the underdog to know not to underestimate anyone.

Hughes’ state title came in 2001 against a Clarksville team that was heavily favored and had the same kind of size advantage Hughes will enjoy tonight. More recently, the Blue Devils were not supposed to get past the Shiloh Christian Saints in the semifinals last Saturday.

Riverview’s players are still playing the “no respect” card, and why not?

It’s worked well since the Raiders lost in the semifinals of their district tournament to Harding Academy.

Whispers were going around that the Raiders had peaked. The 12-15 point wins of midway through conference play were suddenly one-point overtime victories and finally, a loss on their home floor in the conference tournament.

The Raiders carried the sting from that loss, along with a disappointing No. 3 seed, into the regionals at Rose Bud. After beating Atkins with little trouble in the first round, Riverview was supposed to lose to Rose Bud in the semis, and then to Conway St. Joseph’s in the title game. They won both, then moved to state, where they pulled off their biggest upset of the season in the quarterfinals.

The Raiders drew the unenviable task of playing host Valley Springs, who had given Hughes all it could handle in the championship game of its regional, but that wasn’t in Valley’s backyard. The 46-43 win in a hostile environment was an experience that many of the Raiders feel will help them when they played the biggest game in school history.

It was the loss to Harding Academy, however, that point guard Bo Banks believes was the turnaround, not any of the subsequent wins.

“That game hurt bad,” Banks said. “We never doubted though. We knew right then that we were going to come back up.”
Hughes’ Kevin Brown is one of the state’s most high profile players. At 6-foot-6, good post moves, the ball handling skills of a guard and some of the best ups in the state, his profile is deserved.

Brown shocked many people when he chose to sign with Riverview’s neighbor Harding University, but his commitment to the Raiders’ hometown college doesn’t dampen their desire to shut him down.

“He’s the main key for us defensively,” Baker said. “He’s good at so many things we have to make sure we’re where we’re supposed to be and not make any mistakes defensively.”

Hall expounded on the keys to victory that seemed to be unanimously agreed upon by the players.

“We don’t have a lot of height, so teamwork and defense is going to be a key like it has been all season,” Hall said. “The key for us all year is doing all the little things, and we’re going to have to keep it up.”

Riverview junior Thatcher Cooperwood expresses best, perhaps, the team’s attitude heading into tonight’s showdown.

“A lot of people were saying we were going down late in the year, but that was nothing but motivation,” Cooperwood said. “We came in after losing to Harding and had a few really hard practices. We turned up the intensity and carried it to the games. We’re just going to keep doing what got us here.”