Four years after their last trip to the Colonial Life Arena, the Keenan Raiders made themselves at home in the Class 2A boys state championship game, defeating Ridgeland-Hardeeville 69-46 on Saturday.
With 25 seconds left, the Raiders were up by 23, and senior point guard Kendrick Gathers could hardly contain himself as he held the ball for the final time.
“It was breathtaking. I can’t even explain to you in words how it feels right now. But just knowing our community was behind us, our great coaches and the great atmosphere, it just made me so proud,” Gathers said.
Coach Zach Norris said he was proud of how his team was able to rally after a slow start to the season.
“We played a lot of tough teams, and I think that helped us mature, the competition. They were going through some growing pains early and plus I had to do some discipline, but it all worked out for the best. They pulled together and they came on right at the end of this year,” Norris said.
The Raiders (21-8) led for all but 30 seconds in the game and used a 7-point run in the final minute of the third quarter to push their lead into double-digits.
Consecutive baskets from senior Antwan Holmes put the Raiders up 44-34 with 40 seconds left. Holmes led the Raiders with 27 points and eight rebounds.
“He’s a grown man,” Norris said. “He said, ‘You’re all I’ve got, so I’m gonna do this for you,’ and he played an outstanding game.”
Then, sophomore reserve guard Rodriguez Marshall stroked a 3-pointer to push the lead to 13 points, but Jaguar guard Nazair Wilson was fouled on a 3-point attempt at the buzzer and made two of his free throws.
Still, there would be no comeback for the Jaguars.
A three-point play from Holmes started the fourth quarter, and Keenan’s lead grew from there. Meanwhile, Ridgeland-Hardeeville’s offense lost its teeth as DeVantae Robinson, Kevon Williams, Gaylus Bailey and Nazair Wilson all got into foul trouble.
Williams scored a team-leading 19 points for the Jaguars before fouling out with six minutes left.
Ridgeland-Hardeeville saw a 26-game win streak come to an end in its first state championship appearance.
“The biggest difference is that they really attacked the basket, and we didn’t,” Ridgeland-Hardeeville coach Jeremiah Faber said. “When we did get there, we didn’t get the whistles, so our kids got a little discouraged.”
The Raiders had gotten off to a running start, Simmons scoring on a layup and free throw in the first 10 seconds. But Ridgeland-Hardeeville did not stay far behind. DeVantae Robinson put the Jaguars on the board with the first of five Ridgeland-Hardeeville 3-pointers of the night. The Jaguars took their only lead, by 1 point, after three minutes. Simmons responded for Keenan, spinning to the hole for two. Back in front, the Raiders held off the Jaguars for the rest of the half.
Three baskets in a row from Williams helped the Jaguars make it a 2-point game late in the first quarter, but Keenan led 21-15 at the end of the period. With six minutes left in the half, Gathers dished to Antwan Holmes in the paint, and Holmes’ layup gave the Raiders their biggest lead of the half, 25-17.
But it was the Raiders’ last field goal of the session, and the Jaguars had an 8-point scoring burst, powered by triples from Treivon Anderson and Williams, to make it a one-possession game once again.
Keenan padded its lead with 4-of-6 free throw shooting in the final four minutes and led by six at the half.
“I told them at halftime we needed to slow the tempo down some. They wanted to make you run fast and take a lot of quick shots and everything, and I told my guys was we needed to settle down on offense, reverse the ball a couple of times and we’d get layups out of it,” Norris said.
His plan helped the Raiders win the program’s seventh state title, the first since winning back-to-back championships in 2010 and 2011.