The fast starts that Blue Ridge’s boys basketball team put together the entire postseason are important because of what happens on the court — they sent a message to each opponent that things weren’t going to be easy.
But they’re also important because of what it does for the Barons’ bench, a critical part of Blue Ridge’s intentional, evolved team culture.
“That bench sets the tone,” said Blue Ridge senior Jackson Cullhane, who comes off the bench as part of the Barons’ guard rotation. “One of our goals is to start strong and when they get that going, the bench is going and we can just carry that through. It’s always a fun environment on that bench.”
The Barons got the last of those hot starts in their last game together, jumping out to an eight-point first quarter lead. The bench’s energy followed and the Barons beat Norfolk Christian 78-68 in the VISAA Division II championship, locking up Blue Ridge’s second-straight state championship.
“It was crazy because we had to come back stronger, we had to play 10 times harder to get this one,” said Blue Ridge’s Michael Gray. “That made it that much more special.”
Gray led the Barons with 19 points and six boards, setting the pace for a balanced offense with four total players in double figures. William Lee had 17 points, three assists and two boards while Derrick Jones had 12 points and five rebounds. The Barons were simply ready from the outset.
“Even in shoot around this morning we were locked in, we knew what we had to do,” Lee said. “Everyone was just so locked in. Winning two isn’t easy, so we just had to come back really focused.”
Sasha Glushkov rounded out the double digit scorers with 13 points and seven boards while causing all sorts of issues for Norfolk Collegiate in the post. Glushkov is usually dangerous beyond the arc, but this time he got it done in the paint and at the line.
“I was just trying to go to the rim, I saw they didn’t have anyone who could match up with me so I was just trying to go to the basket all the time and finish around the rim,” Glushkov said.
Maliq Brown also exploited the Barons’ mismatches inside as the big man scored nine points and hauled in 12 rebounds while blocking a trio of shots. Both players helped cover for the absence of post standout Andy Nwaoko, who got to come on the floor in an emotional moment in the fourth quarter after suffering an injury Friday. Brown’s second quarter steal at halfcourt that followed with a breakaway dunk helped spark Blue Ridge’s huge surge in that frame.
Kobe Jerome had a solid outing as well with five points, five assists and a pair of rebounds.
The win was a culmination of the Barons’ group of leaders emerging around Christmas to seize control of the season. That aspect of the program was the biggest question mark for Blue Ridge coming into the year after graduating Chris Rogers, Jaden Frazier and Dhruv Mehrotra among other leaders. The Barons’ captains rose to the occasion after a three-game skid around Christmas.
“The challenge for these guys was how are you going to be a leader, how are you going to step up,” said Blue Ridge coach Cade Lemcke. “Our three captains (Gray, Lee and Jerome) did an outstanding job this year, they all came out of their shell in different ways. But those seniors as well, led by example.”
Since that skid, Blue Ridge has won 20 of 21 games and won 30 games for just the second time in program history. They did it with stingy, suffocating defense as the Oaks found out Saturday. Senior Jordan Battle exploded for 28 points for Norfolk Collegiate, but 22 of those points came in the fourth quarter when the game was essentially out of reach for the Oaks.
Outside that late surge though, Blue Ridge held Norfolk Collegiate to just five points in the second quarter and then expanded its lead 60-38 early in the fourth quarter. Battle’s wild finish cut into the lead at the end, but the Barons’ win was never really in doubt from the end of the second quarter on.
“Our mantra this year was to embrace the target, that was what was on our shooting shirts,” Lemcke said. “That’s a big thing because every game we play, the other team, that’s a circled game on their schedule.”
Blue Ridge embraced the target. In doing so though and finishing the job as state champions, there’s a pretty clear consequence — that target got a little bigger going into next season for the two-time champs.