By Maurice Patton
LYNNVILLE – A typically stoic Jason Loveless couldn’t help but smile when, with 3:35 left in top-seed Richland’s Region 5-A semifinal matchup Tuesday night against visiting Houston County, Tyrell Randolph and Logan Helton hooked up on an alley-oop.
Helton’s two-handed finish put the Raiders up by 28, and Loveless cleared the bench soon after as the reserves finished the 62-27 victory – Richland’s 24th in 25 games, with at least two still to be played.
“I’ve been doing this long enough that I know you’ve got to enjoy the good, because there’s good and bad,” the 14-year veteran coach said. “When they play hard and enjoy themselves, I’m going to enjoy it too.”
The end was more enjoyable than the start, both for the Raiders and their coach, as Houston County (12-12) got the hosts’ attention early – leading 12-9 after the opening quarter.
“We’ve been in this moment. My concern was that the guys may have been too energetic, getting themselves out of position,” Loveless said. “(Down) four, six, eight, we’re going to keep doing what we do. We kept methodically grinding on defense, we got the lead and built on it.
“We just talked at halftime about how we were up Saturday against East Robertson and we came out and gave up a 10-0 run. We had to come out and put this one away.”
With a 28-17 bulge at the break, Richland scored eight straight to open the third quarter, then countered a pair of Irish free throws with a Daniel Nicholson 3-pointer to make it a 39-19 game with just under three minutes remaining in the period.
From there, the suspense was all but gone.
“We took the lead early, but it didn’t faze them,” Houston County coach Ethan Dillard said. “They turned up the pressure and took control of the game. Their physicality and their effort, their experience – ‘10’ and ‘35’ are good shot makers, they can score from anywhere. ‘10’ really took control of the game, but they were all under control. They’re a really well-coached team, disciplined.”
They can also make plays on their own, though. Like the alley-oop.
“That’s just chemistry,” said Randolph, the junior guard who got into the middle of the Irish defense in transition with Helton on his left and put the ball up toward the rim for his senior teammate. “We hadn’t practiced that or anything. We’ve lobbed it from the 3-point line, but that was the only thing we’d practiced. That was just chemistry.
“We saw the opportunity and we took it.”
Trey Luna – No. 35 – and Helton, No. 10, led the way offensively for the Raiders with 17 and 14 points, while Nicholson added 14 and Randolph eight.
More pleasing for Loveless, though, was his team allowing just 15 points over the final 24 minutes.
“I told them I appreciated them; in today’s game, it’s tough to get that buy-in on defense. We were really dialed in and locked in. Whatever happens, we’re going to play defense. There’s going to be nights when the ball doesn’t fall. I’m just so proud of our defensive effort.”
Assured of a berth in Monday’s Class A state sectionals, Richland will travel Thursday to District 9-A tourney titlist Jo Byrns – a 65-39 region semifinal winner Tuesday over Culleoka. Region champions host in the sectionals, with runners-up playing on the road.
“Winning’s fun,” Loveless said.
Richland boys 62, Houston Co. 27
H 12 5 6 4 – 27
R 9 19 16 18 – 62
Houston Co. (27) – Brison Self 7, Kerion Tyler 8, Kollin Hibbeler 2, Andrew Meadow 10
Richland (62) – Tyrell Randolph 8, Logan Helton 14, Daniel Nicholson 10, Trey Luna 17, Stevie Ballinger 6, Carter Edwards 2, Jace Derryberry 3, Gage Kirk 2
3-pointers – Houston Co. 0, Richland 5 (Helton 2, Nicholson, Luna, Derryberry)
Photos by Ric Beu / SM-Tn Sports