T.C. Williams head boys basketball coach Julian King sat next to seniors Jamal Pullen, Rick Mathews and Tyrell Sitton as the group prepared to answer questions in the media room at VCU’s Siegel Center in Richmond. The Titans had just suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the AAA state semifinals and emotion was still evident in King’s eyes and voice.
TC’s season of redemption ended on March 9 with a 60-54 overtime loss to L.C. Bird. While any defeat stings, this loss was particularly painful considering what the Titans went through to reach the final four.
After three consecutive Northern Region titles, last year’s TC team failed to even qualify for the regional tournament in a season marred by eligibility issues and forfeits. This year, the Titans started 13-0, but King continued to say the team’s lackluster play would eventually catch up with it. Sure enough, TC lost three straight games and five out of seven, including a home defeat against Lake Braddock — the first time since 2005 a Northern Region team beat TC in The Garden.
The Titans, however, found a way to respond, winning nine straight games. TC defeated Annandale in the Patriot District championship game and again for the region title. After beating Phoebus in the opening round of the state tournament, the Titans were in control against L.C. Bird midway through the third quarter, leading 39-28 and on the verge of advancing to the state championship game. But everything started to fall apart for TC, which fell behind late in the fourth quarter and had to scramble to force overtime. In the extra period, L.C. Bird buried a pair of clutch 3-pointers and held on for the win.
After building a 39-28 lead, TC managed 15 points during the final 15 minutes of regulation and overtime.
"What’s been happening all year long, our bad shooting, caught up with us and it just wasn’t our night to try to mount a comeback," King said. "We ran across a team that was just as scrappy as we are and probably a lot more talented on offensive than we are and they got on a roll with a couple shots. It was hard to come back once you’re down six points with a couple minutes left and a team plays defense just like you do."
TC shot 36 percent from the floor, knocking down 22 of 62 attempts, including 1 of 8 from 3-point range. Regardless, the Titans held a 32-24 advantage at halftime and led by as many as 12 points in the second half.
"We’ve run across a couple junk defenses that have stifled us at times, but we’ve been shooting a poor percentage all year long, so this is nothing new," King said. "As I talked about us digging a hole, I don’t mean point-wise, I mean emotional-wise. It’s kind of disheartening for the kids to have such a big lead and then all of the sudden see it whittled down and you look up and time is winding down and it’s a tied ball game and it’s not what you expected coming out of halftime. We did get a little complacent and didn’t keep the same intensity. Late in the fourth they picked up. Their intensity level went to level 10 and we couldn’t match it."
Pullen and Sitton tied for the team lead with 11 points. TJ Huggins and Landon Moss each scored seven points for the Titans, and Daquan Kerman and Mathews each scored six.
After the game, King told his players the pain of the loss would eventually subside. Pullen, Sitton and Mathews each shared what they would remember about the season.
"We just stayed together after all that stuff that happened," Pullen said. "We just stayed as a team. We didn’t want anything to let us go back like last year. We just stayed together the whole year."
Sitton said he’d remember the good and bad experiences, saying the loss to L.C. Bird would stand out.
"[I’ll remember] all the big games," he said. "We played and we fought and we won and [sometimes] we lost and we learned from it."
Mathews was named MVP of the regional tournament.
"[I’ll remember] the playoffs, mostly," he said. "I hate the feeling of losing. We fought hard together as a team. We overcame a lot of stuff — the three game losing streak, playing Annandale a couple of times this season — I’ll remember it all."
The Titans’ season ended sooner than they had hoped, but TC put itself back among the top teams in Virginia.
"As I just told the guys in the locker room, don’t hold your heads down," King said. "I can’t take away the pain with words, but in time you will realize and understand we had a great season. We accomplished something a lot of people didn’t expect us to do, coming back, basically, from the dead. They’ll have a chance as they move on to bigger and better things to look back and reflect and say, ‘You know what, we had a great year. We lost to a really good team.’"