By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Cassidy Richardson told the assembled media after Richlands’ loss in the Group AA, Division 3 state semifinals last season in Richmond that the Lady Blues would be back this year.
One more win and Richardson will be right.
“You have got to walk the walk when you say that,” Richlands head coach Dennis Palmer said. “We have one more to go to get to that point.”
Fresh off their third straight Region IV championship, the Lady Blues (21-4) will play Brookville (18-6) in the Division 3 state quarterfinals on Saturday morning at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Tip-off is slated for 11 a.m.
“We have been working hard for this moment,” Richardson said. “Hopefully we will get it done.”
It will be Richlands’ third straight trip to the quarterfinals, losing to Robert E. Lee in 2011 and beating Rustburg last season, both of which were played at Virginia High’s Bearcat Den in Bristol.
“I think we are pretty confident,” said Richlands junior Brittany Allen, whose Lady Blues went to Bristol on Thursday to prepare for the spacious Prior Convocation Center at UVa-Wise. “We have been in this position three times so far so we will go in with confidence. We might be a little nervous at first, but once the game starts the nerves go away.”
The winner will advance to Virginia Commonwealth’s Siegel Center in Richmond to face either Brunswick or Western Albemarle in the semifinals on Tuesday.
“We are confident we can get back there, but you have got to play one game at a time,” Richlands senior center Rachel Alley said. “You have to focus on every quarter and play the best as you can.
“You can watch as much film as you want, but you never know what will happen until you step on the court.”
Richlands, which started the season with an 8-0 record, dropped consecutive games to Abingdon and Grundy, and then lost just twice more the rest of the season, both to Carroll County.
That included a Southwest District tournament title game loss to the Cavaliers, forcing the Lady Blues on the road for the Region IV title game at Patrick County, but Richlands left with the 55-45 win.
That was Richlands third straight regional title, not bad considering the school had never won a regional title in basketball prior to the current three-year run that began in 2011.
“It feels great,” Richlands senior MaKenley Davis said. “I have been on the team for three years and I have been able to experience all three of these seasons and it feels great to come out and do something big and let people know that basketball is good here.”
Brookville enters the state quarterfinals having gone 10-2 in its last 12 games, dropping the Region III title game 60-41 to Spotswood. The Bees qualified for state play with a 51-36 win over Northside, led by Anitra Thomas with 27 points.
“We just have to come out strong and play the whole game and don’t let up throughout the whole game,” Davis said. “We have got to get our shots and get back (on defense) because they like to push the ball so we have to play good defense. Defense will definitely win it for us.”
Offense helps too, and Richlands got it from Allen against Patrick County. The junior, who has already committed to play at NCAA Division I Winthrop, had 30 points for the Lady Blues, including six 3-pointers.
“It went really good,” Allen said. “I had a good shooting night. I was thankful for that, but we all worked really hard and we were glad we came out with another regional championship.”
“It feels the same as the first time we won it,” added Richardson. “We worked hard to do it and so it is a privilege to do again.”
After the loss to Carroll County in the SWD finale, the Lady Blues rallied past Tazewell and then stopped Patrick County for that third straight regional crown.
That is a miraculous accomplishment, especially considering the Lady Blues were 0-23 just four years in 2009. That has been followed by seasons of 14, 14, 17 and now 21 wins ... and counting.
“Three years ago was the first time we had ever had that title and now that we have won three in a row, some people are starting to recognize the program we have here,” said Alley, who had nine points, 13 rebounds and nine blocked shots against Patrick County. “People are starting to come out and watch us and they can see we are serious about our sports and we have put Richlands on the map as a threat on the court.”
Led by seniors Richardson, Alley and Davis, juniors Allen and Sarah Compton and sophomore Montana Hearl, the Lady Blues have built one of the better programs in Virginia, and they’re only getting better.
“I think we are shooting better,” said Richardson, who likes having the ball in her hands. “We have five or six people that can shoot and the drive the lane. I think we are as good as we have ever been.
“I just want to play hard on ‘d’, get the ball to the open girl and hopefully we can get it done.”
There is a tendency for a team to be nervous in games like this, but Richlands has been here twice before. That has be advantage, Blues.
“I think since we have done it before that we will be more confident and not nervous,” Davis said. “We have been through it, we have to come out and play like we do every game and give it our all.”
“They have experienced a lot and they know what it takes, how to prepare and how the game is going to be played and the environment of it all,” added Palmer. “I don’t think it will affect us at all.
“Every year is a different year, but having been there and being prepared for it is big for us.”
Richlands, which lost 42-34 to Liberty-Bealeton in the state semifinals last season, has worked all year to get back to that point, but the road to Richmond takes a detour through Wise.
“We are going to have to play hard every single play and knock down our shots and play good defense,” said Allen, who leads the Blue Tornado, averaging close to 20 points a game. “We have to bring the whole package along with us.”
If that happens, then the Blues can take the next step, and make Richardson’s words all those months ago sound like a prophetic statement.
“You just have to look at it as if you don’t win you won’t get there,” Allen said. “It is one game at a time. We have to realize what is the most important game right now and that is Saturday.”
—Contact Brian Woodson