By Matthew Yoder
It had been 12 days since Arcadia last took to the court in competitive action. A solid run through league play helped earn the Firebirds a bye, and an elusive home playoff game. The second-round matchup with Thomas Jefferson High School brought with it much anticipation, as the crowd began to pack the gym early for a 6 p.m. tip-off. The Firebirds had been patiently warming up from the time school let out, sporting their district champion shirts, proclaiming WE>ME. In head coach Rodney Armstrong’s estimation, the layoff and practices leading up to the contest were only helping the team get stronger. With coaches from Chincoteague and Nandua, as well as Armstrong’s teammates from his court days, all in attendance, the stage was set for a memorable night. Only one thing was missing, the opponent. The Vikings, travelling from Richmond, misjudged traffic on the interstate, delaying the game by more than an hour.
So as 12 days and one hour passed, the Firebirds finally jumped back into play. Armstrong’s greatest concern was how his team would handle the moment and settle into the style of play that has brought the players this far. Pregame he spoke to his team’s approach.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, play your game,” Armstrong said.
The Firebirds have been a team built on playing to a frenetic tempo, and to that end Lethon Williams opened the scoring, driving the length of the court for a blazing layup. A couple possessions later, William Scarborough invited deafening applause with a 3-point basket.
The Vikings didn’t travel all that way to lay down in the midst of a raucous atmosphere and quickly dispelled any notions that a five-plus hour drive would hamper their ability to keep pace with the Firebirds.
Two scoring threats quickly emerged for Thomas Jefferson, both tallying points from completely different approaches. Sole Addi-Mensah hit a bankshot from a post-up move for the Vikings first points and would prove to be a consistent threat in the paint throughout the game. Mohammed Mahadi offered more of a fluid option for the Vikings, scoring on a number of baseline moves and on transition layups.
Neither team separated themselves with any great distance on the scoreboard in a lightning fast first quarter, however. Just as it seemed Thomas Jefferson might start to make a little run midway through the quarter, Keevin Collins came up with a great block on the defensive end for Arcadia, spearheading another layup from Williams on the fast break. Keith Grinage provided an immediate spark for the Firebirds late in the quarter with 6 quick points and good defense in the paint against a number of Viking shooters. Still, Thomas Jefferson ended the quarter with a 1-point advantage, 17-16.
The second quarter followed a similar path to the first, with many of the same names playing at a high level. Addi-Mensah’s low-post presence could not be understated, but the trio of Williams, Scarborough, and Grinage offset his gains with a flurry of buckets. While Grinage provided blocks and rebounding, Scarborough distributed well to Williams for a pair of layups. The Vikings did not serve themselves well shooting behind the arc, and as they continued to miss time and again, Arcadia built a small lead. The Firebirds took a 4-point lead after a Scarborough 3, made possible by a Grinage offensive rebound and great swing pass from Williams.
The Vikings quickly reeled themselves back in with more effective shooting in tight from Addi-Mensah and Daquan Roberts.
The score bounced back and forth, and the Firebirds surged with a couple of makes from Kylen Wharton. The second, a layup in transition after a steal from Kamron Downing, gave the Firebirds a 27-25 lead, which proved to be the last time they held the lead in the game. The Vikings ended the half on an 11-5 run, taking a 36-32 lead in to the break.
In a tale of two halves, the second half was called significantly tighter, much to the chagrin of many in attendance, who believed a number of calls put the home team at a disadvantage. Nonetheless, the game remained tight and the themes largely remained the same.
The Vikings stretched the lead early in the third, but a Downing 3 and great passing by Scarborough helped the Firebirds stay within striking distance. Scarborough’s passing helped the Firebirds get to the free-throw line, but the team would not help its cause at the charity stripe. The Vikings did not take advantage of the Firebirds woes at the line and the lead hovered around 6 points as the quarter continued. Addi-Mensah and Mahadi helped the Vikings take a 54-48 advantage in to the fourth.
As possessions were called with greater scrutiny, players began to exit the court, and Roberts, along with his 12 points and paint play was the Vikings’ first casualty to foul trouble. The Firebirds remained aggressive on the offensive end, and a baseline drive from Scarborough led a to a 3-point play at the line, bringing Arcadia to within 4.
The volume of the gym rose to blistering levels as the crowd chanted, “defense,” prompting a Thomas Jefferson timeout.
The Firebirds drew closer after Grinage found Williams for 2 points, but a pair of low post moves from Addi-Mensah slowed the approach, and layups from Mahadi and Donovan Avery ballooned the lead to 8.
The game was still not beyond the reach of Arcadia’s quick-scoring offense, but Thomas Jefferson failed to relent. The Firebirds were forced to foul and the Vikings’ Travis Williams hit a number of clutch free throws to seal the game.
It wasn’t so much that the Firebirds lost to a superior opponent; the teams were evenly matched, and it isn’t that you could point to one possession as making a difference. Ultimately, defensive rebounding and missed shots tight plagued the Firebirds’ chances. That’s not to take away from a tremendously successful season from Armstrong and his Firebirds team, particularly the play of the seniors who fought with humble enthusiasm.
Williams ended his high school career with a game high 23 points, and Grinage and Scarborough each added 10 points.
Addi-Mensah led the Vikings with 20 points, followed by Mahadi with 17, Roberts with 12 and Williams with 10.