With 20 seconds left in the game Saturday night, the NCS Division 6 championship more than secured, Rincon Valley Christian's Garrett Robert had the ball just past mid-court. Robert had stopped moving. He was standing right in front of the RVC student section. He looked at them for a response and they gave it to him. In unison they chanted down the seconds: "20! 19! 18! ... " Robert pounded the ball emphatically to each second, all the while facing the screaming crowd and smiling. The grin swallowed his whole face, is what it did.
"That was the greatest moment of my life," Robert said later. "My only worry was wondering if I was going to get tackled by the students once the buzzer went off."
It was only a worry. Robert wasn't tackled. He was hugged at the buzzer, surrounded so tightly this had to be what it's like for Justin Bieber going through a crowd. The moment, the exhilaration, the living up to all the expectations, it came together nicely, convincingly, permanently. RVC is the D6 champion and no one can say the team got lucky doing it. The Eagles took Ferndale apart, 52-28, validating its No. 1 seed but even more than that, performing with grace under fire.
That would be keeping their cool when Ferndale came at them with shoves and slaps and hip checks and arm thumping that sent RVC players crashing to the ground at least four times. Robert and James Leng both stayed on the floor for a while, composing themselves and then keeping their composure. Afterward RVC coach Darren Nelson was direct in his opinion of such behavior.
"I would never permit it on my team," Nelson said.
It was an added measure of satisfaction for RVC. Beyond lifting their record to 28-4, beyond making the last two NCS D6 finals a distant memory (both losses to Ferndale), RVC continued to play basketball while Ferndale had moments in which it forgot its football season was over.
"They were losing the game in their head," Leng said, "while we were winning the game on the scoreboard."
Winning the game, Leng was being charitable in using those words. RVC had a 40-16 lead at the end of the third quarter, a 45-18 lead three minutes in the fourth quarter. When Robert just stood there with 20 seconds left in the game, he was being charitable as well. The statement had long been made. In fact, Leng said the statement was made in the first quarter, when RVC held a modest 12-6 lead.
That's when Leng felt the Eagles had the game under control.
"We were shredding their zone defense," Leng said. "We got into their heads right there."
Ferndale, Nelson said, had made it this far in the NCS playoffs because of that tough 2-3 zone defense. It was their default option among all others. The Wildcats, 14-12 on the season, might shoot poorly — they hit only 26.1 percent of their shots (11-of-42). The Wildcats might turn the ball over — they had 27 turnovers in the game. The Wildcats might even look like football players playing basketball. But they could always count on that zone defense as being impenetrable.
"I think that rattled them, the way we destroyed their zone," Nelson said.