COMMERCE — Tuesday’s Region 8-AA boys championship game had just about all anyone could ask for in a high school basketball contest: Two impassioned teams diving on the floor for every loose ball; two fan bases hanging on every possession; and a finish that thrilled one half and left the other demoralized.
Jefferson defeated Riverside 58-57 to claim its seventh region title in 10 years and spoil the Eagles’ bid for a repeat.
Four Dragons scored in double figures, led by Darius Minor’s 19. But the win wouldn’t have happened if not for the late-game heroics of J.J. Damons.
With the Eagles holding a tenuous two-point lead, Damons streaked open down the floor, gathered in an outlet pass, and converted the layup while being fouled to tie the game with 6.5 seconds remaining. The ensuing free throw danced around and hung on the rim before dropping through, and Damons clinched the win when he stole the inbounds pass seconds later.
Jefferson will play host to Manchester in the first round of the state tournament Friday night, while Riverside will welcome Spencer.
“I’ve been fortunate to have good kids and good people around me,” Jefferson coach Bolling DuBose said after the game. “To win seven region championships in 10 years is pretty phenomenal.
“This one, I wasn’t too sure about.”
He had good reason to be concerned.
Riverside (17-4), which had a 12-game winning streak snapped in the loss, seized the lead in the first quarter and held it for all but a few possessions the rest of the way. Until the deciding moments, the Eagles seemed to have an answer every time the Dragons (22-6) made a push. Likewise, Jefferson never let the Eagles pull too far ahead.
Riverside led by as many as 11 at one point in the second quarter, before the Dragons’ full-court pressure defense began to take its toll. Jefferson forced eight turnovers in the second quarter, including three on consecutive possessions, and cut the lead to 24-20 late in the half.
Riverside’s Kane Duncan drilled a 3-pointer at the second-quarter buzzer to give the Eagles a seven-point cushion, but the Dragons had served notice that they wouldn’t be submitting any time soon.
Jefferson, which has now won 15 straight, took its first lead on a lightning-quick 7-0 run spurred by Minor and David Watson, but Riverside ended the third quarter with another buzzer-beating 3 — this one from Richard Tribble — to take a 41-40 lead entering the final eight minutes.
Tribble made four 3-pointers in the game and shared a team-high of 17 points with Tarvin Dukes, who added nine rebounds and went 7-for-9 from the free throw line.
“It was one of those games where you get in a hole early and you keep trying and trying to claw your way out,” DuBose said. “It didn’t seem like we could ever get over the top.”
Riverside kept the Dragons at bay for most of the fourth quarter. When Minor tied the game with a little less than four minutes left on a 3-pointer, Dukes came right back down the floor and answered with a three-point play.
But the Eagles could never add to the lead, and Jefferson stayed within striking distance. Riverside had a chance to put the game away in the final 30 seconds, but could only convert one of three free throws down the stretch, which set the stage for Damon’s deciding three-point play and steal.
Damons, who finished with 11 points, and Minor have been team leaders for the Dragons throughout their unbeaten run through the region schedule and tournament, but DuBose also singled out the play of Watson (14 points) and Tate Chesser, who scored 12, including 6-of-6 shooting on free throws.
Riverside, which got 13 points from Dylen Setzekorn and 12 rebounds from Brandon McKinney, must now turn its attention quickly to the first round of the state tournament. First-year coach Rico Zackery has already reminded his players of that fact.
“I feel bad for our kids, because they gave it everything they had,” he said. “They played as hard as they could play and it’s hard to criticize little mistakes when they’re giving that kind of effort.
“But like I told them, ‘we’ve got at least one more game to play, so you’ve got to have a short memory.’ We have to forget this and move on and put our attention on our next game.”