T.C. Williams head coach Ivan Thomas keeps calling Bethel High School a “monster.” He first floated the term in the ladder portion of the Northern Region tournament, when he was assured that his Titans would face off with a representative of the Eastern Region.
He repeated the phrase again in the Virginia AAA state quarterfinals and once more after bypassing Petersburg High School in the state semifinals.
“They’re a monster,” Thomas said. “They have five guys that can play. They have a deep bench. They are very similar to us in how they play — team basketball. I think they’re individually more talented.”
Perhaps Thomas is really that enthused about the resurgent Hampton program, or perhaps Thomas is meticulously crafting another source of motivation, which has encompassed his highly successful three-year tenure at T.C. Williams.
“They’re pretty good and they have a very good coach,” Thomas said. “They’re very disciplined so we expect nothing less than a battle.”
If the Titans can slay the 30-1 Bethel ogre during the championship game at the Siegel Center in Richmond on Friday, T.C. Williams would be in line for the school’s first Virginia AAA title in 31 years and the Northern Region’s first since Robert E. Lee upended Booker T. Washington by six points in 1981.
“It would mean a lot for us to bring the title back home,” said senior shooting guard Travis Berry, who poured in a game-high 20 points on Tuesday. “We haven’t won a title in almost 30 years, and for us to bring it home would be a big thing, especially in my senior year.”
But as Thomas, flanked by Berry and senior Anthony Winbush at the postgame press table, continually emphasized, that means continuing to amp up the defensive pressure that has only allowed 42.5 points per game in the two playoff games.
In the postseason, starting with the Patriot District tournament, the Titans have only allowed 50-plus points one time. In fact, in the nine postseason games, T.C. Williams is relinquishing only 40.7 points per game.
“We’re going to rest our hat on defense in this tournament, no doubt,” Thomas said.
The Titans gave up 79, 64 and 69 points in their three losses, but have made defense and extra priority. In the week preparing for the state playoffs, Thomas emphasized defense, preaching that it will in fact, win the team a championship.
<b>AGAINST PETERSBURG</b>, with 6-foot-8 junior center Cadarian Raines, T.C. Williams’ Tomas Camara, Ryan Yates, Josh Jordan and Winbush all had a crack, and stymied the athletic center.
“They were able to put pressure on him to the point that every shot he took was an unbalanced shot or with a bad angle,” said Petersburg head coach Bill Lawson III.
It was a defensive strategy that was similar to the one employed against King’s Fork. Thomas chose to have 6-foot sophomore center Jay Copeland (15 points) roam free rather than to have the long range shooters get hot.
The plan may prove risky amid a Bethel frontcourt that touts eight players at 6-foot-4 or more, including 6-foot-7 Clemson signee Mbai Goto Olivier.
“I think [Bethel has] more athletes than us, in terms of major, major athletes,” Thomas said. “I think our pressure can bother them. Our pressure bothers everybody, but I hope our pressure bothers them too.”
Thomas scouted the Eastern Region final, and has relayed the message at hand to his team. That much was evident after Bethel’s relatively easy win over John Marshall (the Bruins led by 17 points heading into the third quarter) in the state semifinals.
“They’re an excellent team,” said Berry, who has hit four three-pointers in each of the past state playoff games. “We’re going to have to come out and play our hardest. It’s the last game so we might as well play it on the court.”
Thomas has a couple of motivational tactics up his sleeve, which may surround Bethel’s last state championship. In 1993, Allen Iverson helped the Bruins win the state title in both football and basketball.
But for seven seniors, it will be the last time they play for the Titans. Even Thomas is already reflecting on how much he will cherish this team, with respect to the constant individual sacrifices they’ve made for the sum of the whole.
“Generally I can ask every guy on this team to do something and they’ll do it for the benefit of winning,” Thomas said. “When they sub in, nobody makes faces. That’s rare for high school kids.”
Thomas cited specific instances during the season when his players would get frustrated that he valued state tournament qualifying 2006-2007 team as superior in talent.
“They were a little annoyed by it,” Thomas said. “You’re not as good as last year’s players, but there are certain things that we can do to make us a better team. And they did it.”
<b>FOR THE 6-FOOT-7</b> Winbush, who battled early foul trouble to contribute 19 points against Petersburg, relinquishing the individual success may have come at the deterrent to his recruitment. But what had been a tenuous process, also has the chance to be a genuinely treasured one as well. And what better way than to win a state title?
“It’s my senior year,” Winbush said. “I’m trying to get to the last game we play.”
Berry on the other hand, has been willing to be a reserve, despite being the team’s leading scorer.
“My mindset is to come off the bench and bring a spark,” Thomas said. “If I come off the bench and don’t produce, then other people are still going to step up to get the job done.”
Outside the locker room on Saturday and again on Tuesday, Thomas spoke like a proud papa watching a team — led by Winbush, Berry and junior guard Edwards Jenkins — succeed despite losing 48 points per game to two Division I schools.
“There was a little bit of celebration, but our guys talked about their goals,” Thomas said. “Not many people in Northern Virginia gave us a shot to get down to [Richmond]. Losing Mike Davis and Glenn Andrews, not many people gave [Winbush and Berry] a shot.”
And for proving everyone wrong now that they’re so close?
“It was surreal,” Thomas said of the team’s realization of its opportunity at history. “It kind of hit them, but they understand they have a monster in front of them. They still have work to do.”