Zach Norris knows what high school state basketball championships are all about. He knows the experience from guiding his 2000 and 2001 Keenan High teams to titles. He knows how to prepare a team for the experience, and he knows what it takes to win.
That is why he was ready to pluck the few unshaven stubbles out of his nearly bald head when Keenan trailed Burke by three points at halftime of Saturday’s Class 2A championship at Colonial Life Arena.
Norris, in his 11th season at Keenan, long ago gave up screaming as a motivational technique. So, instead, he pulled up a stool in the locker room and had a stern, face-to-face talk with his team as its members sprawled across the floor.
"We missed three layups," Norris said, starting his oration slowly.
Then he picked up the pace.
"We had 11 turnovers, unforced turnovers," he said. "We haven’t had 11 turnovers in the playoffs . . . Total! Total! Total! That’s terrible."Faster now, and a little bit louder.
"Shot goes in, everybody is standing there looking," he said. "Somebody’s got to get back. They got six points off of that. Six! Six!"
Now a voice of disbelief.
"Free throws. Four for nine in the first half," he said. "We’ve got to shoot better than 70 percent. That’s not even 50 (percent). You’ve got to concentrate and knock them down. That’s all it is. Be a man. Be a man about this whole thing."
Then the voice of reason.
"We’re trying to win the state championship," he said. "You’ve got to play together and do what you’ve been taught to do. It’s right there in your grasp. Are you going to let it slip away? We’ve got another half! We’ve got to lock up (on defense)."Finally, before he was ready to release his team out the door and back into the arena, Norris pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
"We’ve got an ace in the hole," he said. "They haven’t seen a zone (defense) yet."Keenan is a man-to-man defense team. The attacking, pressure defense has been the staple for Keenan basketball for as long as Norris has been there, and probably beyond . . . all the way back to state championship teams in 1975 and 1991.Desperate times call for desperate measures. Asten Lawson knows that. He was the point guard on the 2000 state title team and now serves an assistant to Norris. He suggested to Norris that it was time to go zone.
Norris and Lawson had considered opening the game in a zone defense, but decided not to tip their hands. Playing a 2-3 zone in the first half would have given Burke and its coach, Earl Brown, time to make adjustments.
It took outstanding execution by Keenan in the zone, and the switch proved to be the difference in a second half that was dominating for the Raiders. Burke operated as if it had never seen a zone defense before, unable to score from the perimeter and ineffective operating inside.Burke did not make a 3-pointer after halftime. It scored only four points in the third quarter, none in the 5:36. While Keenan’s defense stymied Burke, its offense began to click led by a trio of seniors - Jacob Green, Dennis Rowe and Bradley Smith - who started together since they were freshmen.
With junior guard Eric Washington running the show, Keenan worked the ball anywhere it wanted on the floor and converted many of those layups it missed in the first half. It also made 15 of 18 free throws in the second half, most in the closing minutes to seal the 57-47 victory.
"I’m just so thrilled to death with the way these young men performed," Norris said afterward. "They went in at halftime and were down. I got on them pretty good in the locker room about having some pride in themselves and doing the little things we had taught them to do."
After a medal was hung around the neck of each Keenan player and the championship trophy was presented at midcourt, the team sprinted out of the arena and a wild celebration ensued in the hallway leading to the locker room.
At one point, Washington squeezed the championship trophy to his chest and said to one and all: "This is ours!"
A few minutes later, Norris stood at the front of the locker room and congratulated his team. One by one, each player made their way to the head coach and hugged him, each with all his might.
It had been nine years since Norris last experienced a state championship. He still knew the feeling. He knew how much he loved it.