King’s Fork girls punch ticket to state championship

Published 7:06 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Early in the season, Niyah Gaston had lost confidence in her outside shooting to the point where she told coach Maurice Fofana that she was only going to drive to the basket.

But with some encouragement, Gaston kept taking her long-range jumpers, and her renewed confidence paid off in the biggest moments of King’s Fork’s home Class 4 state semifinal matchup against Manor. The Bulldogs will now play for a state title Thursday.

Despite the game being played at King’s Fork, Manor’s fans made up the majority of the crowd, and they were loudly encouraging their team as they were down just four points to the Bulldogs with just over 6 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

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That’s when, after the Mustangs missed on an opportunity to cut the lead even further, Gaston drained a 3-pointer to put the Bulldogs’ lead at seven, and then, about a minute later, hit another one to extend it to 10 points, prompting a fist-pump from Fofana on the sideline.

Those shots shifted the momentum back to King’s Fork (22-3), which held off Manor (22-8) for a 60-53 win Monday. The Bulldogs will face Millbrook (25-2) at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in the Class 4 state championship game at the Siegel Center in Richmond.

“My confidence is back all the way now,” Gaston said. “That was just in the beginning of the season I had a rough start, but my confidence is back now.”

With open looks, Gaston didn’t hesitate to shoot, and Fofana said her baskets were crucial.

“If you remember when we played against Smithfield, the same kid, Niyah Gaston, she’s a big-shot shooter, earlier she was telling me: ‘Coach, I’m just going to drive to the basket. I’m not shooting no jump shots,’” Fofana said. “I said, ‘No, you’re going to keep shooting that ball,’ ’cause she’s our best shooter.”

She continued to shoot 3s in that game against Smithfield, hitting two late in the Bulldogs’ win in the Region 4A quarterfinals. And just like that night when King’s Fork needed them most, Gaston made a pair of late-game 3s to give her team a much-needed cushion.

The matchup against Manor was hardly like the two teams’ previous two games this season, both 21-point King’s Fork wins. The state semifinal contest was much more physical and, at times, frenetic.

“We just had to fight,” Fofana said. “We had to fight through adversity. We knew that they weren’t better than us, but their energy, they came in, they had a big crowd with them, and they rode off of that energy all night.”

And while King’s Fork led for all but about 30 seconds of the first quarter, its lead felt tenuous as Manor made its push. When Gaston hit her second 3-pointer of the fourth quarter, and third of the game, it was the first time the Bulldogs had led by double-digits.

“We just had to persevere,” Fofana said. “We kept fighting, we kept fighting, shots didn’t go our way, we didn’t get a couple of calls we thought we should’ve gotten, but the kids kept playing, they kept fighting, so I’m just happy that they continued to keep fighting. They could have easily gave up, they could have easily backed off when it got a little tougher, but they kept fighting.”

King’s Fork also got large contributions from Arlisha Boston and Cyriah Griffin, who led the Bulldogs with 15 points apiece, and Yasmine Brown added 12 points, with many of their baskets coming on layups or on shots close to the hoop while also drawing fouls.

The win puts King’s Fork, which beat Powhatan in the state quarterfinals before it beat Manor for a third time, back in the state championship game for the first time since 2017. One more win against Millbrook would give the school its first girls basketball state title.

“It’s huge, man, it’s huge,” Fofana said. “I can’t put it into words on how proud I am. The kids played their last game on their home court. You can’t ask for no more than that. They left it all on the floor. They played hard, and we’re just looking forward to Thursday.”

Note: Fans attending the Virginia High School League 2022 basketball championships at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond will be required, per university policy, to wear a face mask except when actively eating or drinking in their seats. Fans will not be allowed to enter games without a face mask.