As friends and family surrounded his players on the court at the University of Lynchburg’s Turner Gymnasium, George Washington coach Jermaine Parker recalled the game-planning he did in the days leading up to Tuesday night’s Class 4 state semifinal game.
There were sleepless nights, when he tried but failed to turn his mind away from thinking through the challenges his Eagles could encounter in the rematch of the Region 4D title game with Jefferson Forest on Tuesday. And there were nerves, he admitted, up until the game got underway.
Every coach and player can experience such anxiety, he contends.
“I had a little nerves. … If you love the game, if you have passion for the game, there’s automatically gonna be nerves,” Parker said.
But, he added, he wasn’t ever concerned with his team’s preparation. He wasn’t worried about the matchups his players would encounter.
“[It’s] not that the guys were not going to respond,” he said.
The coach was right. His team, in fact, responded to the nerves, the expectations for a chance to bring home GW’s first state title in 21 years, in spectacular fashion early on Tuesday, and the Eagles kept responding all night to pull off a 53-38 victory.
Jefferson Forest took a 2-0 lead after securing the tip and finding 6-foot-9 Trevor Robinson under the basket for an easy bucket. But seconds later, the Eagles answered, and then went on a 15-4 run for a big lead at the end of the first quarter.
“The nerves went down” then, Parker explained.
“And the guys showed me they were ready to go get [the win],” he added.
As the rest of the game played out, the Eagles, who led for the remainder, had all the answers.
When starter and high-scoring forward Shunta Wilson (16 points) had to find a seat on the bench early in the first half when he picked up two fouls, his teammates stepped up.
Carlos Poole scored four his nine points in the first quarter, Ny’Rek Wheeler (13 points) added a pair of 3s and two other baskets in the first half, and Taevon Wilson upped the pressure defensively.
“It’s important,” Wheeler said of having multiple guys on his team contribute, “because we won’t get far without a bench, or having more people that will step up.”
Walden, who tallied 10 points, was the sparkplug early on for GW. While he had just three points in the first half, he finished with five steals and kept JF from running its offense effectively, stepping into passing lanes to grab the ball and start runouts. He also snagged long rebounds that led to easy points for GW.
“I had to contribute somehow to help my team win the game,” Walden said.
The Eagles also came up with the right responses time and time again in the second and third quarters.
When JF built some momentum with a steal and dunk from Brock Swaney with six minutes left in the first half, Poole answered with a dunk off a Forest turnover. When Forest senior Jordan Richeson found some space for a layup three minutes into the third, cutting the GW lead to two points, the Eagles added five straight to space it back out, keeping JF at arm’s length.
“I think they just hit shots when they needed to. They hit timely shots all night,” Jefferson Forest coach Cameron Shepherd said. “We were making a run and they’d hit a 3, they’d get a bucket and the foul. They kept grinding tonight and did what they needed to do to win. … They just did what they do at a really high level tonight.”
The Cavaliers, in fact, never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
And in the fourth quarter, GW atoned for not closing out the past few games the way they’d like by outscoring JF 15-6.
“We [spent] almost the whole week practicing for that,” Wheeler said of their end-of-game preparation.
With 1:28 left, Kapone Barley knocked down two free throws to give the Eagles their largest lead of the night at 15 points.
All that was left, then, was the response from GW fans, whose “let’s go Eagles” chants echoed through the packed gym as the final seconds ticked away and GW players and coaches their celebrated their still-alive state title hopes.
“We’ve been dreaming about this for a long time,” Wheeler said, “… and this feels like our dreams are coming true.”