March 8, 2018 at 6:54 PM
RICHMOND — Wakefield guard A’Mari Cooper got the steal and the possession off Varina’s inbounds pass late in the Virginia Class 5 state championship game Thursday that he hoped to turn into the winning points.
So right after snagging the ball out of the air along the baseline, the senior turned to the basket. If he had remembered that 45 seconds remained in the game, Cooper said, he probably would have dribbled the ball out of the paint and let the clock run a bit.
But Cooper, recounting the sequence after No. 12 Wakefield’s 64-60 loss to Varina, wanted to erase his team’s one-point deficit. He jumped toward the rim, but before he could put the ball through the net, a Varina player got a hand on the shot and referees whistled for a jump ball.
No basket. No longer the Warriors’ possession. And moments later, still no end to Wakefield’s 57-year state title drought.
“I was thinking just score. Try to get the lead. Try to win the game as best I could,” said Cooper, who finished with nine points and 10 rebounds and entered the postgame news conference with red-rimmed eyes. “It was a good tie-up.”
That the Warriors (25-9) reached the championship game Thursday afternoon at Siegel Center was a product of Cooper’s leadership. Wakefield opened the season with several losses in the opening month, prompting Coach Tony Bentley to expect the season’s results would reflect more of a rebuild than a state-championship contender.
But with Cooper’s team-high 16 points per game, and a developed tenacity, the Warriors lost just two games since Jan. 2 by the time they arrived at the arena on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and opened a 31-23 lead at halftime, punctuated by a buzzer-beating dunk from guard Jared Watkins.
“We went in the locker room, we were a little down,” Varina wing Tyrese Jenkins said. “I had to let them know to pick it up, the game’s not over.”
Jenkins led all scorers with 21 points and was a force in the second half as the Blue Devils (26-2) cut Wakefield’s lead to four after three quarters and went ahead for good with an 8-2 run to begin the fourth.
“I’ve been doing this a long time . . . and it’s called momentum,” Bentley said. “Varina did a good job. They seized the moment with the momentum, and it just overwhelmed us a little bit. We still fought, but particularly the momentum was still on their side.”
Center Robert Starkey led Wakefield with 20 points, often utilizing backdoor passes to disrupt the Blue Devils inside, and Bentley highlighted the junior as a player he hopes can power the Warriors to another deep state tournament run next season.
“I’ve been to plenty of clinics and plenty of camps, and no one’s ever taught me how to respond to kids after a big loss,” Bentley said. “You just talk to the young guys, and you say, ‘Look what you’ve got to look forward to.’ ”