With a 19-day layoff between Monday night’s game and the Riverside Military basketball team’s next contest, coach Marvin Latham emphasized to his players the importance of going into winter break on a high note.
He got the result he wanted, though the path to it was far from smooth.
After squandering a double-digit lead in the second half, the Eagles mounted a last-minute rally to escape with an 81-77 win against Hebron Christian Academy at Richard M. Nichols Arena in Gainesville.
“It’ll boost our spirits,” said Riverside Military’s Jabari DePass, who had a game-high 24 points. “It feels good to go into the break with a win. It’s like a big Christmas present.”
The Eagles (4-3, 3-1 Region 8-A) led by as many as 21 points in the third quarter, but they found themselves down by one with six minutes to play. That’s when juniors Isaac Teasley, who had a double-double, and Khalid Duke stepped up to score a combined 15 points in the final period.
“Our kids played hard, and our staff coached them hard,” Latham said. “I was proud of our guys to come through and play to the end. Sometimes there are games like this where you’ve got to grind and push through it.”
Yet the first quarter was a breeze for Riverside Military, which began on an 18-1 run as DePass bullied opponents around the rim. The Eagles quickly got in foul trouble, though, and the Lions (2-8, 2-1 region) attempted 22 first-half free throws to make up for their low total of six buckets.
Riverside Military still led 45-28 at halftime and seemed poised to run away with the victory when DePass completed a 3-point play to give his team a 52-31 lead.
Latham said the Eagles have made a trend of starting fast this season but hinted sustaining that early cushion has been a challenge at times.
Hebron Christian demonstrated just that, narrowing the deficit to 17 points heading into the fourth quarter before making its huge run. Troy Allen (23 points, eight rebounds) unleashed a flurry of 3-pointers as the Lions suddenly turned the tide and went ahead 65-64.
“The refereeing changed, and we took a while to adjust to it,” Latham said. “It’s part of the game. You have to understand how the game is being called. But tonight our kids did some maturing and growing up. They kept their wits about them when things got crazy and came together as a team.”
Duke (12 points) and Teasley led the charge in that department. Teasley — who stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals — knocked down six free throws in the fourth quarter, but the most critical ones fell to DePass.
The senior forward missed two free throws with 17.3 seconds left, giving Hebron Christian a chance to overcome its three-point deficit. He went back to the stripe with Riverside Military up 79-77 and 3.3 seconds remaining on the clock, redeeming himself with a pair of game-sealing shots.
“I was looking at the score and really wasn’t worried,” said DePass, who also had seven rebounds. “I know this team, and I know that we could finish on top.”
Now the Eagles can carry that momentum into winter break, though some of them will return home until classes resume.
Riverside Military’s next game is Jan. 6 against region foe Providence Christian Academy. Until then, Latham said he’ll still hold practices and shootarounds with the players who stay in the area, but Monday’s win will make the next 19 days of preparation much more pleasant.
“This was big for us,” the fourth-year coach said. “We’ve had success coming back from the break before. The kids come back rejuvenated. … But fighting through things like we did tonight, it’s good for us going forward.”