Varina again dashes King’s Fork hopes of advancing to state semi-finals

Published 6:03 pm Wednesday, March 8, 2023

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By Matthew Hatfield

Contributing writer

The King’s Fork Bulldogs made the trek to Highland Springs High School in Richmond Tuesday, March 6 with visions of payback on their minds.

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A year ago, their undefeated season and dream of a state title came to a crashing halt in the VHSL Class 4 State Tournament semifinals against the Varina Blue Devils, falling 84-68.

This time, the game would not be nearly as high scoring and King’s Fork would lead at both half-time and through three quarters, extending their advantage to as many as eight points in the early moments of the fourth period.

But the finish was anything less than stellar, failing to record a field goal the final 7:14 in the defensive battle with the reigning State Champs and coming up short, 40-34.

“It was a tough game. Our guys were uncharacteristically a step behind. I don’t know about nerves, but their physicality inside was weighing on us and allowed them to make us a little bit disoriented. We had the looks.  We could never really pull away,” said a disappointed King’s Fork head basketball coach Rick Hite afterwards.

Varina, which was held to just 2-of-27 shooting from the field by King’s Fork’s suffocating defense in the first half, closed on a 21-7 run over the final 6:53.  

Spearheading the Blue Devils was unsung 5-foot-10 senior guard Jerome Conway, who erupted for 13 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 straight. That included a three-pointer with 2:55 to go in the contest that tied the score at 30-apiece and ignited the Varina crowd.

“They disrupted us. We let the kid Conway go left, get some shots off and made them. We lost our coverages. Our guys were kind of watching, eased up and the kid just made big plays down the stretch,” Hite added. “Easier shots we were making harder than needed. We didn’t stand up. They came and got us.”

Early on, both teams had trouble finding the bottom of the net as the score was deadlocked at 5-all through one period of play with each defense digging in against the other. Even though the Bulldogs misfired on their first nine shots from the field, they were able to nudge in front during the second quarter with senior Ryan Hite and sophomore Adarius Boston each drawing charges within a span of 53 seconds.

While Varina went 0-for-12 from the field during the second period, King’s Fork grabbed a 14-8 lead at half-time thanks to Adarius Boston’s three-pointer with 40 seconds remaining in the half. The Blue Devils tied the score at 15-apiece midway through the third quarter, though the Bulldogs scored nine of the next 13 points, highlighted by back-to-back baskets from 6-foot-6 junior wing Zekhi Darden.

Hite’s son Ryan was a defensive stalwart throughout, recording seven blocks.  Yet, when he went down with in pain with 1:20 to play in the contest and Varina ahead 34-32, it was an unsettling feeling to say the least for the Bulldogs bench. 

“He’s the glue and can do everything,” said Hite, who watched reserve Elijah Walker come on to make two free-throws that knotted the score up at 34-all.  

Varina scored its next two trips down the floor – one on a bucket from Conway and another that he assisted on – and King’s Fork failed to score another point, ending its outstanding season where it beat every Southeastern District foe it played and playoff opponent up until that point by double-figures.

“You won’t digest it, that’s the thing,” Hite replied when asked how he and his players will cope with the finish.  “It’ll haunt you for a long time.  But again, this is what sports are.  Somebody is going to win, somebody is going to lose.”

King’s Fork came in with a better record of 22-3 overall compared to Varina’s 21-4, yet the Blue Devils were able to play the semifinal match of the State Tournament in the ‘804’ area code for the second consecutive year due to the VHSL pre-determining which area would host when common seeds square off based on a rotation.

Hite would not use that as an excuse for his team being unable to achieve its goal and reaching the State Championship game at VCU.

“It’s a court. There’s a basketball, referees and two good teams where they can beat us anywhere and we could beat them anywhere,” Hite noted. “Conway was more the difference and their inside play than the location.”

Senior guard and Region 4A Player of the Year Sam Brannen was the lone double-digit scorer with 13 points in his final game for the Bulldogs. He also collected nine rebounds, sharing team-high honors with Darden.