Two months ago, Keenan was lost.
It finished seventh at its own Christmas tournament. The team had not been at full strength because of suspension or injuries. But even then, coach Zach Norris did not tell his team how proud he was of them at the time. Maybe he knew something.
He can tell them how proud he is of them now.
He can also call them the Class 2A state champions.
The Raiders won their first state title in 10 years with a steady 57-47 victory against Burke Saturday at the Colonial Life Arena.
"At Christmas time, I didn’t tell the kids, but I was really proud of them," Norris said. "We were playing younger kids and they were gaining valuable experience. I think it paid off towards the end of year. It’s been a long 10 years but it feels good to be back here."
The distance Keenan traveled to get to Saturday’s state championship was not lost on the players. Point guard Eric Washington talking about how the team grew.
"To know where we came from and the struggles we went through and how we bounced back shows how much we were together and stayed true to our system. I have to give all the thanks to my teammates," the junior guard said.
Keenan started 6-7, but finished 22-8. The addition of seniors Jacob Green and Bradley Smith with five games left in the regular season helped them turn the corner, winning each playoff game by double digits.
"We went through hard times," Keenan senior Dennis Rowe said. "We didn’t have all of our team but the young dudes stepped up and helped us out. At the end of the year, everybody stepped up and helped out."
They did it against Burke with their traditional stingy defense after Sidney Sanders carried Burke (26-3) early, as his 17 first-half points gave the Bulldogs a 25-22 halftime lead.
The Raiders switched things up in the second half and used more zone defense, and added in some diamond-and-one looks to try and slow Sanders - who finished with 26 points but never got on track in the second half like he did in the first.
"We kept playing him tough," Washington said. "He’s a good ball player and you have to respect that. We just played tougher defense and put it all on the line."
Sanders’ jumper gave Burke a 29-24 lead with 5:56 left in the third quarter, but Keenan replied with an 8-0 spurt and never trailed again despite 28 turnovers. Sanders stole an inbounds pass early in the fourth quarter and scored to make it 35-34, but that would be as close as Burke would get.
"We stayed mentally tough," Norris said. "Things were not going our way early, but we hung in there and good things finally started to happen."
Good things came from the free throw line, where the Raiders made their first 12 attempts of the fourth quarter. Twice they missed a foul shot, but got another chance after Burke commited a lane violation.
The second of those violations came as Keenan led 41-38 with 4:28 remaining. Jacob Green missed the front end of a one-and-one, but when given a second chance made both.
Burke, who have a 73-8 record over the past three seasons and twice have finished as Class 2A runners-up, never came closer than three points the rest of the way.
The Raiders had five players with 8 or more points. Green led the way with 12 points and Rowe added 11. Washington and Quinton Johnson pitched in nine each, and Kenny Reed finished with eight points.
Keenan graduates seven seniors but Norris thinks they will be ready to defend next year.
"We think we can make another run for it," Norris said. "We don’t call it right now, but I think we can make a serious run at it."
K - Jacob Green 12, Dennis Rowe 11, Washington 9, Johnson 9, Reed 8, Smith 5, Jasper 3. B - Sidney Sanders 26, Hayward 8, Simmons 7, Coaxum 2, Ross 2, Montgomery 2. Recs: Keenan 22-8; Burke 26-3.