The Highland Hawks entered Saturday with the challenge of playing their first game without Cameron Timmons, an injured 6-foot-10 senior center.
But it didn’t show.
Despite his absence, they put forth a dazzling defensive effort to win the Delaney Athletic Conference tournament championship by beating Wakefield 73-58 at home in Warrenton. In fact, Highland kept the Owls from scoring 59 points for only the third time this boys basketball season.
“For all of them to step up without big Cam on the floor is the ultimate credit,” Wakefield head coach Al Ford said. “They played like men. They asserted themselves.”
Senior guard Darret Justice led Highland’s defense by locking down the Owls’ leading scorer, Kaleb Torrence. The Wakefield junior guard finished with only two points.
“An incredible feat,” Hooker said of Justice. “He has to defend the best player on the other team pretty much every night.”
With the help of Justice’s defense, Highland (24-5) limited the Owls (19-7) to 24 points in the second half after leading only 35-34 at halftime.
“As soon as we started getting the first rebound [of the second half] we were able to pull away,” Justice said. “I told my guys I was going to guard Kaleb Torrence full court even if we are in half court” defensive sets.
Luke Rodgers, meanwhile, defended against another potent Wakefield offensive weapons in Marcel White, who finished with only 14 points. And Josiah Baines performed marvelously while filling in at center for Timmons.
“Rodgers did a fantastic job,” Hawks coach Brian Hooker said. “Baines didn’t get a ton of playing time during the year. He came through tonight. That is a credit to him.”
So Highland’s defense fueled a 22-9 run in the third quarter, giving the Hawks a 57-43 lead entering the fourth.
“We needed to come out and make a run,” said Hooker, whose Hawks have a 54-1 record in DAC play over four seasons.
“We didn’t come out and [defend] as well as we thought we could in the first half,” he said. “We also didn’t get out in transition as best we could, but it is hard to get out in transition when they are making baskets.”
The Hawks improved in those areas during the second half to give them the tournament title after they also won the DAC regular season championship. Next, they will play Tuesday in the first round of the VISAA Division II state tournament as a No. 6 seed against No. 11 Norfolk Collegiate.
“We want to make a long run in the state tournament,” Hooker said. “This is the year I think we can make that run happen.”
Sophomore Angelo Brizzi agreed.
“We want four more wins and a state title,” he said. “That is the goal.”
Brizzi led Highland with 18 points Saturday.
“Angelo is a terrific scorer,” Hooker said. “He has seen a lot of full [ball] denials from a lot of teams this year. He handles it well. He has a lot of skill offensively and he showed it tonight.”
Brizzi had 11 points in the first half to help offset timely 3-pointers by the Owls in the first half.
“My teammates got me the ball and I tried to get to the free-throw line,” Brizzi said. “We had to adjust to not playing with our big man. … Some shots started to fall and that was big.”
Justice added 17 points, including a 3-pointer created by a rousing move that put the nail in the coffin during the waning moments.
In the first half, true to form in the rivalry, the Hawks and the Owls created a torrid pace that included 18 ties or lead changes. But Highland began the second half on a 6-0 run to begin their surge.
“We did not come out and execute or defend with the physical toughness that we needed,” Ford said.
With Wakefield’s energy dwindling, Highland seemed to get stronger as the game went on.
“We do a lot of extra stuff in the offseason that a lot of programs don’t do,” Hooker said. “We go through boot camp and we practice a ton … so that in tight games we can pull through as a team.”