RICHMOND – Brian Wells' lingering memory of facing Burlington Central was a bitter one, making Friday night's payback possibility an important one for the Richmond-Burton senior guard and his teammates.
Avenge a lopsided loss from earlier this season and the Rockets would capture their fourth Big Northern Conference East Division title in the past six years and post the program's first 20-win season since 1989-90. Lose and R-B would have to settle for splitting the championship with two other teams.
Sharing, the Rockets decided, wasn't for them.
R-B connected on 10 3-pointers and finished the fourth quarter with an impressive push in a 76-67 title-clinching victory.
"We came in with some fire," said Wells, who led R-B with 23 points "We knew if we win, it's only our championship."
Despite leading by 10 points early in the fourth quarter, capping the conference championship run required overcoming some adversity. R-B (20-7 10-2 BNC East) watched as Central surged to cut the deficit to 64-61 with 3:09 remaining.
But the Rockets answered, scoring the game's next six points to push the lead back to nine. R-B finished off the win by hitting six free throws in the final 1:10 to close out the victory.
"That's good for you – it builds a little character going into the regional," R-B coach Brandon Creason said. "You're either going to fold or respond. With three minutes to go, there was a ton of game time left and so we needed to secure rebounds and not turn the ball over."
Throughout the night, R-B's perimeter shooting proved to be its biggest ally. Central (15-8, 7-4) used a 10-2 scoring run early in the second quarter to draw even after R-B built an early lead. Reed Hunnicutt's 3-pointer with two seconds remaining in the first half gave Central a 37-34 halftime lead.
But that's when the Rockets turned it on from the outside as Blaine Bayer and Mike Kaska each hit from beyond the arc to give R-B a 52-47 lead. It turned out to to be just the boost the Rockets needed.
"Once we get hot, we're pretty dangerous," Kaska said. "Once our defense picks up, we get open looks all over the court. When our big men run, we look in from there and they kick it out all the time. It's a good plan for us."
Joe St. Pierre was productive in the post with 12 points to balance out the inside-out attack.
The win came three days after R-B pulled out a sluggish win against Harvard. Noticing his team was down on itself, Creason lightened things up in practice, setting the stage for Friday night's championship celebration.
"Thank God it worked," Creason said.