Handley boys three wins away from goal
Posted: March 2, 2013
WINCHESTER — It was five weeks ago today that the Handley boys’ basketball team found itself at a crossroads.
Believed by many to be the most talented team in the area coming into the season, the Judges had just dropped a 66-59 decision to Northwestern District rival Millbrook on their home court.
That loss dropped them to 3-2 in the district and left some questioning whether the season was slipping away.
Suffice it to say things have changed quite a bit over the last five weeks.
When Handley (21-4) takes the court against Bruton (19-5) in the Group AA, Division 3 state quarterfinals at 2:45 p.m. at James Madison University today, it won’t look anything like the squad that walked off the floor of Maddex-Omps Gymnasium back on Jan. 26.
“We said after that Millbrook loss that we had a 12-game season,” said senior Jake Rudolph, referring to how many wins the Judges would need to capture a state championship. “Since then we’re 9-0 and we’ve got three more to go. After every win we’ve been reminding each other to stay hungry and to keep fighting.”
Those nine straight wins have included a sweep of the remaining regular season and both the district and Region II, Division 3 tournament titles to boot.
The 9-0 run has consisted of game-winning heroics from junior point guard Tre Brown, timely 3-pointers from seniors Jake Rudolph and Buster Wigley, solid contributions off the bench from Solomon Finley, Will Dearing and KeSean Robinson and dominating play in the paint from big men Cameron Jackson and Darion Robinson.
It’s featured some of the best offensive and defensive sequences that Handley has displayed all year and it’s come in front of both friendly and hostile crowds.
The only question now is, can the Judges keep it going?
Standing in their way today is a Panthers team that may be short on height, but has plenty of athleticism and speed to make up for it.
“They go about 6-foot-3, 6-4 but they can jump and they like to run,” said Handley coach Tommy Dixon. “They’re good basketball players. It’s not about how big you are, it’s about how well you play.”
An argument can be made that nobody is playing as well as Handley has been the last few weeks, but Bruton — out of Williamsburg — has been rolling along itself.
Winners of nine of their last 11 games, the Panthers’ only losses this season have come to Region I, Division 4 champion Grafton (three times, including in the Bay Rivers District Tournament finals), district foe Warhill (57-56) and two-time defending state champion Brunswick (56-49 in the Region I, Division 3 finals).
Bruton is outscoring its opponents by an average of 10 points a game and is led by a trio of junior guards in 6-foot-2 Marcus Carter (16.3 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists per game), 5-foot-8 guard Lonnie Swinton (12 points per game and the team’s top 3-point threat) and 6-foot-1 Kapri Doucet (10 points per game).
“We have three juniors in the [starting] lineup but all three played varsity as sophomores, so we’re young but we’re experienced,” said Bruton first-year coach Joe Dillard.
“We’re a transition team that has to rely on our offense and trust our offense to get us shots. We’re perfectly fine with an up-tempo game.”
That should be music to the Judges’ ears.
Trotting out the 6-foot-8 Jackson (team-leading 17.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game) and the 6-foot-5 Robinson (11.9 points and 9 rebounds per game) every game, Handley has shown it can control the paint and grind out a win against big front lines.
But where the Judges are most comfortable is out in transition.
“I think we have the athletes to play that style,” Dixon said. “I think a lot of teams have tried to take us out of that, but I think it will be encouraging if [Bruton] runs with us and we run with them because it should be a good match.”
Dixon is also banking on the experience of last season helping out.
After missing the state playoffs two straight years, the Judges returned in 2012. And while it would prove to be short-lived — the Judges lost to Brunswick 63-38 in the state quarterfinals — it gave many members of this year’s team a taste of what to expect.
“The experience from last year is the biggest thing for us,” Robinson said. “Knowing what it’s like to play on that big a stage against the better teams in the state is something most teams don’t see in a season, so it’s huge for us.”
Robinson and his teammates are probably too young to remember, but this won’t the first meeting between Handley and Bruton with state title implications on the line.
The Panthers beat a Lang Campbell-led Judges team in the semifinals back in 2000 on their way to the only state championship in program history.
That was the only time that Handley’s reached the state semifinals in 27 years under Dixon, a mark the Judges and their fans are hoping will change down in Harrisonburg today.
“We want to go out with a bang and win that first state championship in Handley history,” said Rudolph (14.1 points per game). “That’s been our goal all year. We’re playing the best basketball we’ve played since I’ve been at Handley and we just want to keep it going. We just need to get these last three wins and I think we have a good shot.”
— Contact Kevin Trudgeon at firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1