When the Keenan Raiders arrived at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Saturday, they immediately recognized their locker room. It was the same locker room they had retired to in 2013 after falling in the Class 2A Upper State final.
But the Raiders returned to that locker room on Saturday as Class 2A Upper State champions after defeating Strom Thurmond 59-45.
Keenan (20-8) has earned its first state championship game appearance since 2011.
“It means a lot to our community. We’re kind of used to getting there. But it’s been a dry spell. I don’t know how many years its been,” Keenan coach Zach Norris said.
The Raiders led early but fought through the second quarter to a 26-all halftime tie.
Strom Thurmond (19-9) opened the second half strong, with Daquarius Johnson jamming in an assist from Tyree Stidem to give the Rebels their first lead, 28-26.
Senior point guard Kendrick Gathers kept the Raiders focused and settled as they worked to take control.
“Coach always talks about playing a whole game, not just one or two plays, but a whole quarter, and to have a short memory, when things go wrong on one end, just trying to make up for it at the other end, and that’s what we tried to do,” Gathers said.
The squads traded baskets over three possessions, and were tied at 32 after two and a half minutes. Then, three turnovers from the Rebels helped Keenan launch a 12-4 run over the next two minutes. When Majerle Poole hit his second 3-pointer of the night with 1:13 left in the third, it pushed the Raiders’ lead to 10 points.
Tariq Simmons closed the session with a fadeaway jumper for three points at the buzzer to set the score at 51-39 going into the final period.
Norris said a defensive switch in the third quarter helped the Raiders stay afloat.
“We changed to a half-court trap that they probably hadn’t seen in film, because we hadn’t used it much this year. So, we knew we had that ace in the hole,” he said.
From there, the Raiders slowed their offense while Strom Thurmond could not keep its attack going. The Rebels were 3-of-16 shooting in the fourth.
Keenan, ranked No. 3 in the state, started fast and furious, but the No. 7 Rebels hung in through the first half.
While the Rebels were strong at the defensive boards, they struggled to control the ball in transition, three times giving up the ball before they could set up on the offensive end. Keenan converted two of those takeaways into buckets and held a 15-13 lead after eight minutes despite going scoreless for nearly two minutes at the end of the period.
Two Keenan fouls in the first minute of the second quarter helped the Rebels tie the score with 6:38 left in the half. Meanwhile, Simmons broke the Raiders’ scoring drought and put Keenan back in front with a layup and free throw with 4:38 to go.
Jacob Cook responded with a 3-pointer for Strom Thurmond to knot the score again.
When Keenan looked to pull away – using four consecutive points from Lemarcus Johnson to regain the lead – the Rebels charged back. Back-to-back buckets from Rebel forward Daquarius Johnson tied the score with 50 seconds left in the half. Both teams went 0-for in the final minute of the session.