Gate City's Tihlee Anderson looks to pass off against Clarke County's Chandler Rhoads. Photo by Ned Jilton II.
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RICHMOND - The Gate City boys basketball team hoped for a fairytale ending to its season in Saturday's VHSL Group A championship game at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center.
What it got instead was a grim fairy tale.
After leading by eight points with 5:28 left to play, the Blue Devils were held scoreless until the final buzzer as defending state champion Clarke County rode a 13-0 run to a 60-55 victory.
"I called the Magic Basketball Fairy and he sprinkled some magic dust on us and it brought us back and we won the game," Eagles coach Brent Emmart quipped when asked what he told his players during a timeout called at 5:51 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Evidently, it took a few seconds for the spell to take hold. Gate City's Cody Salyer stroked his third 3-pointer of the night for the 55-47 lead with 5:28 showing. But when the ball refused to fall on Salyer's subsequent open look, the miss marked the beginning of the Blue Devils' worst offensive drought of the year.
Gate City shot an icy 0-for-7 for the remainder of a quarter that saw four other possessions sacrificed to turnovers.
Clarke County made use of the interval. Rob Williams, a 6-foot-4 swingman, came off the bench to score eight of his 10 total points during that comeback run, including the pair of free throws that put on the final margin with 13.5 seconds left to play.
"On last year's state championship team, Rob didn't play a whole lot. He had a great attitude. He was our sixth man," Emmart said. "Some other guys had a great game, but he was probably our unsung hero MVP tonight."
The Eagles (26-4) didn't take the lead for good until Christian Waters' free throw made it 56-55 with 1:53 showing. Gate City coach Scotty Vermillion called a timeout and the Blue Devils proceeded to run almost a minute and a half off the clock until Jamie Hackney let fly with an intermediate jumper at the 34-second mark.
Unlike so many Hackney clutch shots this season, the ball rattled around inside the rim before bouncing out.
"It was real frustrating. I thought it was going to go in like all the other ones. But this time, it went their way," Hackney said.
Matthew Bays, Gate City's 6-5 center, pulled down eight rebounds before fouling out with 3:46 left in the fourth quarter. His presence was clearly missed as the Blue Devils were denied second shots during the final three minutes of the game.
A pair of double-bonus free throws by Chandler Rhoads put Clarke County up 58-55 with 31 seconds remaining. Tihlee Anderson made an errant 3-ball attempt with 17 seconds left. After Williams' two free throws, Hackney fired up another attempt outside the arc with five seconds showing. It was Gate City's last gasp.
"We've been in that situation three out of the last four games," said Vermillion, who took Gate City to its first state championship appearance since 1999. "You make decisions as a coach. Several times tonight I thought about calling a timeout. Our kids have been there. You want to let them play. We've got the kind of players that can make plays at the basket."
Hackney finished with 11 points and eight rebounds for Gate City (24-6) while Salyer had 13 points and seven boards. Anderson had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists in an impressive sophomore state finals debut that almost turned the tables on Clarke County.
After trailing 31-24 at the half, Gate City got early buckets from Salyer, Hackney, Steven Williams and Josh Johnson to beat the Eagles' lead down to 36-32 by 4:54 in the third period.
Anderson took his cue to start running amok, slashing Clarke County's middle to pieces. He scored nine points and distributed two assists during a Blue Devils run that saw it tied up 41-41 on a Salyer 3-pointer and had Gate City leading 50-43 on Steven Williams' bucket off a Hackney pass with 40 seconds left in the quarter.
"The Anderson kid was killing us. He was killing us in the middle ... either shooting or creating for his teammates," Emmart said. "So I pretty much threw everything in the arsenal at him to try to change the complexion of the game. The last defense I threw out there seemed to work well and led us to the championship."
Waters scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for Clarke County. In the first half, guard Joey Racer kept the Eagles aloft by hitting three treys, scoring 13 of his 15 total. Rob Williams had nine rebounds.
The game was far closer than Clarke County's 86-52 blowout of James River in the semifinals foreshadowed. Against Gate City, the Eagles held a slight 39-37 rebounding edge overall while committing 11 turnovers to the Blue Devils' 12.
With Gate City set to lose only one senior to graduation and expecting to return all five starters, at least the Blue Devils have something to look forward to.
"We learned some things. We grew up this year. Everybody that played significant minutes is coming back," Vermillion said. "You hate to start getting them excited about next year. But I am."