By Chris Yow
CEDAR HILL — Establishing an inside presence early and knocking down free throws was the recipe for success on Thursday for Richland, as the Raiders earned the Region 5-A championship with a 51-40 win at Jo Byrns.
“I really don’t want to talk about (making free throws) because I feel like you’re jinxing us,” Richland coach Jason Loveless said with a laugh postgame. “In all honesty, we have felt really comfortable when we have a lead in the fourth quarter to make (opponents) come out and guard us.
“Those are seniors stepping to the line and getting it done.”
Richland (25-1) converted 10 of its final 12 attempts from the line in the fourth quarter and went 13-for-18 for the game. Jo Byrns did not attempt a free throw in the game.
Senior post player Stevie Ballinger dropped in six of the Raiders’ first nine points of the game, forcing the hosts to adjust to the size advantage he held under the bucket. With Ballinger drawing attention, his classmates made the Red Devils pay.
Daniel Nicholson poured in a team-high 17 points for Richland and Logan Helton added 15.
The Raiders forced six first-half turnovers, and 10 for the game, and built a 10-point lead in the first half before the hosts battled back. Jo Byrns (17-4) ended the first half on an 8-2 run that saw a pair of 3-pointers go in.
The Red Devils then cut the lead to 27-25 coming out the break on the first possession with a bucket from Jayden Caira. The senior guard finished with a game-high 19 points as the only player in double figures for Jo Byrns.
Ballinger answered on the other end for the Raiders, and by the end of the third quarter — on the heels of a buzzer-beating trey from sophomore Jase Derryberry — the visitors were ahead 39-30.
Jo Byrns wasn’t going to go away easily in the region championship, as a raucous crowd cheered on the home team. Logan Head got a bucket that was answered by Nicholson, but Caira scored five straight to cut the lead to 41-37.
That was as close as the game would get, however, as Richland played keepaway and knocked down those critical free throws — the final six from Helton — to ice it.
“We’ve got great leadership on this team, and it starts with those seniors,” Loveless said. “Jackson Alsup and Daniel Nicholson are very much our vocal leaders, and you’ve got guys like (Helton) who steps up and does it with his play and his presence.”
Richland will host Loretto, which fell 56-41 at West Carroll in the Region 6-A finals, in a Monday night sectional matchup. Loveless said, however, he and his team will enjoy this one for now.
“We are going to enjoy this one. This is hard to do, and Jo Byrns is a good basketball team. We had to fight,” he said. “We’re only focused on the next 32 minutes. When we wake up (Friday) we will put our hats on and go to work.”
Richland boys 51, Jo Byrns 40
R 17 10 12 12 — 51
JB 13 10 7 10 — 40
Richland (51) — Logan Helton 15, Daniel Nicholson 17, Trey Luna 8, Stevie Ballinger 8, Jase Derryberry 3
Jo Byrns (40) — Taylor Head 6, Ryan Dowlen 8, Bryce Cox 3, Logan Head 2, Jayden Caira 19, Kenny Tolliver 2
3-pointers — Richland 4 (Luna 2, Helton, Derryberry), Jo Byrns 6 (Caira 3, Dowlen 2, Cox)
Photos by Chris Yow / SM-TN Sports