State champions: Bulldogs hold on to bring home Class 4 title

Published 9:44 pm Thursday, March 10, 2022

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The first celebration was premature.

The second was oh so sweet.

Leading throughout most of the contest, King’s Fork’s girls basketball team held on to win the Class 4 state championship Thursday 71-67 over Millbrook at the Siegel Center in Richmond. The Bulldogs are the first girls basketball team in Suffolk to bring home a state title.

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“I think all of the games that we have played has prepared us for moments like this,” said King’s Fork coach Maurice Fofana. “We had some tight moments in the region. We played a tight one the other night. We were prepared for all of this.”

Cyriah Griffin, who scored 12 points and had 13 assists while playing all 32 minutes, clinched the title for the Bulldogs with her basket with 14 seconds remaining.

King’s Fork (23-3) was eager to celebrate the state title, and after a scramble around the Millbrook basket, initially began celebrating and the rest of the team spilled onto the court, thinking time had expired as the horn sounded. However, 2.3 seconds were put back on the clock, and King’s Fork had to hold on to officially begin the festivities.

Four Bulldogs, including Griffin, scored in double figures, led by Yasmine Brown’s 15 points and Niyah Gaston’s 13 points, which included three 3-pointers, and Kiana Brittain with 12 points, eight rebounds and six blocked shots. Arlisha Boston added nine points.

Though Gaston was slow to get untracked, once more she hit a pair of crucial 3-pointers in the fourth quarter as Millbrook closed in on the lead King’s Fork held for nearly 30 of the game’s 32 minutes.

Despite leading for much of the game, it took about a half for King’s Fork to find its bearings from the floor, hitting just 42.3% of its shots, going 11-for-26, in the opening 16 minutes.

The second half was another matter.

The Bulldogs hit 65.2% of their shots in the second half, going 15-for-23.

“We are used to playing on a high school floor, which is different,” Fofana said. “The baskets are different. Nothing’s behind it. Most all high schools have the wall behind it. It does affect the kids’ shot sometimes.”

Millbrook (25-3) scored the first basket, but its lead lasted just eight seconds, and it never led again, though it kept the game close. The Bulldogs never led by more than 12 points, and led by nine at halftime, 29-20.

The Pioneers cut the lead to three by the end of the third quarter on 61.5% shooting, going 8-for-13, and it set up for a frenetic final eight minutes as both teams battled for a state championship. Millbrook got King’s Fork’s lead down to two, at 54-52, with about 5 minutes remaining, and got within one possession on several occasions and again cut it to two, at 69-67, on a basket from Kenndi Rooks with 18 seconds left.

The Bulldogs’ defensive pressure, however, kept the Pioneers just out of reach, and Griffin beat Avery O’Roke to the ball at midcourt, with her layup providing the final margin.

“It was about who wanted it more, and I wanted the ball, I wanted this more,” Griffin said.

Millbrook coach Eric Green Sr. praised the Bulldogs, saying they were just a little bit better than his team and took advantage of their weaknesses. He said in the latter stages, the Pioneers were tiring.
“They jumped out on us, and we were able to fight back, and we just were never able to overcome that little, two or three-point lead that they kept on us,” Green said.

Fofana was grateful to have that advantage to work with.

“It’s always good to be ahead because you always … have that little cushion, and we like that,” Fofana said. “We haven’t had a lot of close games where we were behind and had to fight to get up.”

King’s Fork focused on taking Millbrook standout O’Roke out of her game, and it worked. Though she had 13 points, most of them came from the free-throw line as she shot just 3-for-16 from the field.

“I feel like I had an idea of what she wanted to do,” Brown said. “I watched film last night, I watched film this morning and I watched film on the way to the game this morning. And she seemed to go left a lot. And so if you’re already anticipating going left, you’re already there to cut her off. She could go right, but she didn’t go right a whole lot. She wants to go left and go all the way to the basket, so it’s easier to guard her knowing that she wants to go left.”

Just a sophomore, Griffin was important in keeping the Pioneers off-balance throughout the game and showed her mettle in the moment.

“She knew when to push, and she knew when to back off,” Fofana said. “So we felt like we were in control of the game the whole time.”

Millbrook had five players score in double-figures – Hannah Stephanites (15), Kaylene Todd (14), O’Roke (13), Jaliah Jackson (12) and Rooks (11).

But it wasn’t quite enough for a Pioneers team not quite used to seeing, on a game-in, game-out basis, the pressure and athleticism King’s Fork brings.

“We played against some tough teams that put pressure on us,” Green said, “But when you don’t see it all the time, when it does hit you, it takes a while to get adjusted. Give them kudos for the excellent defensive pressure that they applied and made us have to make adjustments.”

Fofana, who played on the Nansemond River boys team that won the 1995 state title, and who coached King’s Fork to the title game in 2017 – some of them were in the Siegel Center stands watching Thursday – said the win means a lot to him, and he remembered what it was like in the interview room five years ago falling short in the title game.

This visit to the interview room was much sweeter.

“It’s amazing, man,” Fofana said. “I don’t really know how I should feel, but I tell you, I feel great. It’s big, and for me, always preaching to the kids that, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve won one. You get you one.’”

They listened, and they got one.

And King’s Fork, and Suffolk, now has a girls basketball state champion.