STUARTS DRAFT — The margin between winning and losing at the state level is razor thin, and one bad stretch can spell the end of the season.
Riverheads had a 19-minute bad stretch Friday night and the Gladiators are now left wondering what happened after blowing a 15-point lead as the Mathews Blue Devils rallied for a stunning 59-56 victory in the Class 1 boys basketball tournament quarterfinals played at Stuarts Draft High School.
The Gladiators seemingly had the Region 1A runners-up down-and-out, leading 28-13 with 3:16 left in the first half. But from that point, Mathews outscored Riverheads 46-28 in shocking fashion to advance to Tuesday’s state semifinals against Colonial Beach. Colonial Beach completed the quarterfinal elimination of the two Region 1B representatives by ousting Sussex Central 49-37.
As well as the Gladiators played to gain the 15-point advantage, they went in the opposite direction almost as quickly as the defense became porous, allowing transition baskets and back-door cuts when the defense wasn’t completely set. The Blue Devils also killed Riverheads on the boards, especially the offensive glass, which helped lead to 16 more possessions in the game.
“Our transition was not good at all after we got the lead,” Riverheads head coach Chad Coffey said. “Too many easy baskets and second-chance points. When you score 56 points, you should be able to win the game.”
Coffey said he knew the game was going to have a lot of ebbs and flows just by the way to the two teams play.
“Both teams were going to have runs. That is just the nature of basketball,” he said. “But Mathews did a better job of stopping our runs.”
The Gladiators led 13-9 after the first quarter despite shooting 1-of-9 from the arc, which was a theme that haunted them throughout the night as they went 5-of-23 for the game after hitting 10 in Saturday’s regional championship victory over Sussex Central.
Riverheads’ final run of 12-0, sparked by back-to-back 3s from Grant Painter and baskets by Ryan Farris and Painter following Mathews turnovers, set up the 28-13 advantage.
The Blue Devils virtually wiped that deficit out in two minutes after a 10-0 burst, which got three baskets from 6-foot-2 junior Caleb Thomas, for a 28-23 score with 44 seconds left in the half.
Riverheads, which finished the season with a 14-9 record, managed to lead 32-25 at the break when Farris hit two free throws after getting fouled .3 on the clock.
The Gladiators forced Mathews into 13 first-half turnovers, but only scored six points off the mistakes, a fact that wasn’t lost on Coffey.
“It should have been more than a seven-point game,” he said. “We didn’t capitalize on the opportunities given us.”
Painter’s two free throws gave the Gladiators a 36-30 lead before Mathews went on another spree. Caleb Thomas had a stickback and scored off a steal, while Samuel Thomas converted a driving layup off the break, tying the game with 36 with 2:41 left in the third quarter.
Tied at 38, Elijah Dunlap nailed two freebies and Zack Adams turned a steal into a layup for a 42-38 margin with under a minute left.
The Gladiators settled for a 42-40 advantage going to the final period, but once again a key six-possession stretch when they blew four layups at the rim and two turnovers kept the lead from being bigger.
“Those six possessions probably were the biggest in the game,” Coffey said. “We had four point-blank layups and didn’t finish any.”
Mathews took its first lead of the game, 45-44, when James Hunley drilled a 3-pointer at the 6:05 mark.
After Dunlap put the Gladiators back in front, 47-45, with a deep 3 from the left corner, John Green had back-to-back baskets, the last a tip-in, while Samuel Thomas finished the 6-0 run, giving the Blue Devils the upper hand for good at 51-47 with 4:03 left.
The Gladiators cut the deficit to one point four times, but never could get a stop at the other end.
“We would work hard to get a basket, but within a couple seconds they responded on the other end to keep us back on our heels,” Coffey said. “We were standing at times and lost our man on the break or cuts to the hole.”
Mathews final four points in the last 44.9 seconds came by converting clutch one-and-ones, including Caleb Thomas who had missed his first three free throws of the game.
Riverheads had one final attempt at sending the game to overtime, but Painter’s 3 from 28 feet was well short.
The loss ended the careers of Painter, Dunlap, Adams and Deacon Moore. Painter finished as the third-leading scorer in school history.
“It’s tough saying good-bye to those seniors,” Coffey said. “They did not reach their end goal, but they learned a life lesson that sometimes its just doesn’t happen. They have a lot to keep their heads up. They accomplished a great deal at Riverheads. All the guys played hard and left everything on the court.”
Painter finished with a game-high 23 points in his final game, while Dunlap had nine, Moore seven and Adams four.