It couldn’t have been any more exciting and it couldn’t have been any closer, but when all was said and done it couldn’t have been any more disappointing for the James River boys basketball team Monday. The Knights saw an amazing season come to an end with a 49-47 double overtime loss to Radford at the Roanoke College Cregger Center in Salem Monday.
The matchup, the fourth of the season between two talented Three Rivers District rivals, was for a spot in the state Class 2 championship game in Richmond Saturday. River was coming off an equally exciting double overtime win over Union High in the state quarterfinal in Big Stone Gap last Friday, fighting off elimination twice for a 74-68 victory.
Monday’s state semifinal with Radford was played before a near capacity house at RC. In the three previous games Radford had won twice, including a one point win in the Region 2C championship, but the one game River won was by 35 points, so it was hard to tell what to expect on Monday. What played out was a game that was hotly contested from start to finish before Radford pulled out the win.
“It was another incredible game to be a part of,” said River coach Ethan Humphries. “The ball didn’t bounce our way on a few shots. A made shot here or a call there and we are riding to Richmond on Saturday. At this point of the year, in the state playoffs, a lot of times it’s just a matter of getting that lucky bounce one more time than the other team.”
Radford jumped to an early lead but the Knights battled back to take a two-point lead at the half, 28-26. From that point neither team led by more than five for the rest of the game as they battled tooth and nail before a raucous crowd at RC.
The Knights had the last possession of regulation, calling a timeout with 2.7 seconds to go and the score tied at 41-41. Ryan Steger’s deeply contested three-point try didn’t fall and the game went into overtime.
Both teams scored three points in the first extra period. Radford had a three-point lead but Steger’s three tied it up at 44-44. Radford had the last possession this time, but Landen Clark’s shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim, forcing a second overtime.
Both teams had the lead at one point of the second overtime. Radford held a 48-47 lead when Jayson Easton was fouled with 18 seconds remaining. Easton failed to convert and the Knights were forced to foul. Radford made one of two with 10 seconds remaining and the Knights had one last try. Steger’s three-pointer missed and Radford grabbed the rebound, setting off a wild celebration on the Bobcats’ end of the court and much sadness on River’s side.
Jayson Easton and Patrick Clevenger finished with 11 points each to lead a balanced River attack. Corey Easton had 10 points, Ryan Steger had nine and Heath Andrews had six before fouling out. River played just six in the game, with Ben Bailey subbing.
The loss followed an equally exciting double-overtime win in the quarterfinals last Friday at Union High. The Bears came in as defending state champions and another packed gym provided an electric atmosphere for this elimination game.
“The quarterfinal was the wildest basketball game a lot of us have ever experienced,” said Humphries, who played for a state championship River team as a student. “It was one for the ages and one of those you-had-to-be-there type of moments to really understand the dynamics of that game. To have our guys go on the road in an insanely hostile environment of the defending state champs and pull out the gutsy performance they did was something we will all remember.”
River stunned the home crowd by going up 21-8 in the first quarter, paced by four three-pointers by Steger. Union pulled to within six at the half, 28-22, and River still led 44-36 after three quarters, but that’s when the drama really unfolded.
Union scrapped to a six-point lead, 52-46, with just 49 seconds left but River would not quit. Corey Easton hit a three to cut the lead to three points with 43 seconds to go, then brother Jayson Easton stole the ball and Humphries called timeout. Jayson nailed a game-tying three with 18 seconds to go and River held on the other end to force overtime.
River trailed again in the first overtime, but Corey Easton hit a three at the buzzer to tie the game once again and send it to a second overtime. The nearly exhausted Knights prevailed in the second overtime period to pull out the 74-68 win.
Corey finished with a team high 24 points and Steger had 22, with the two combining to nail 10 three-pointers, four for Easton and six for Steger. Jayson Easton had a dozen and Clevenger had 10 for the Knights.
“We had all kinds of guys step up,” said Humphries. “Obviously Corey, with big shot after big shot, was huge for us. Steger got us off to an incredible start getting hot early. Sam Bell came in late in the second overtime to essentially ice the game with two huge free throws. It was the epitome of a team effort win and that’s what makes it so special.”
Meanwhile, Radford was defeating Virginia High at Roanoke College Friday, 67-49, to set up Monday’s game between the two district rivals. River outscored Radford by 17 points in the four games combined but the Bobcats were able to pull out the close ones when it counted the most, so they’re off to Richmond Saturday with a 20-4 season record.
The Knights finished the season with a 21-5 record, losing three times to Radford, once to county rival Lord Botetourt and once to Class 3 semifinalist Northside. River had wins over East Rockingham, William Fleming and LB while playing possibly the toughest schedule in the state for a Class 2 team. River will graduate seniors Clevenger, Jayson and Corey Easton, top reserve Bailey and Landon Tolley.
“We’ve been telling our guys for weeks now that the last game doesn’t determine our season,” said Humphries. “The body of work these guys have created this season is historic for our program and we couldn’t be more proud of everything they’ve accomplished.
“Who would have ever believed James River would play, let alone win, some of the games we’ve played this year? It’s a testament to our guys and their willingness to step up to any challenge put in front of them. Knowing we won’t be able to put on our gear and meet these guys in the film room before practice tomorrow hurts way more than the loss does.”