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After a string of early defeats, coach Kevin Garst took players to knock down some pins. A team emerged.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Salem's Alex Light (center) grabs a rebound in front of a crowd of Grafton players in the Group AA Division 4 state championship game on Saturday in Richmond.
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Basketball coaches across Timesland next winter might be flocking to Lee-Hi Lanes.
The bowling establishment on Apperson Drive is where Salem High School’s boys basketball team got its 2012-13 season out of the gutter.
Salem began the year by losing eight of its first 12 games, ending with a 19-point loss to Northside followed by setbacks against Blacksburg and Cave Spring in the Spartans’ first two River Ridge District games.
So when Salem’s players trudged in for practice on a Wednesday following the loss to Cave Spring, head coach Kevin Garst told the team to hit the hardwood, but not the sort of boards they were expecting.
“We walked into the gym and he said, ‘We’re going bowling,’ ” junior guard Will Pratt said. “We went bowling for a practice.”
Set ’em up, knock ’em down.
After a 66-48 loss to Carroll County in the Region IV final, Salem bowled over every remaining obstacle in its path.
The Spartans claimed the Group AA Division 4 championship late Saturday night with a 56-48 victory over Grafton that completed an impressive postseason three-bagger.
Salem stopped Region III champion Heritage in a quarterfinal and eliminated Region II champ Potomac Falls in the semifinals.
That left Region I champion Grafton as the only thing standing in the way one of one of the most improbable runs ever by a VHSL school to a state basketball title.
Salem (19-10) became one of very few VHSL state champions with double-figure losses. Garst, who was part of the school’s 1994 Group AA championship team as a player under Charlie Morgan, knew how to push the reset button.
“Coach Morgan always used to tell me, ‘Kevin, it’s like a switch. You’ll see it when these guys will get it,’ ” Garst said. “I honestly never really knew what he was talking about. I think it ‘switched’ this year.”
Salem followed the same formula Saturday night that the Spartans used throughout most of the postseason, mixing high-percentage shot selection with defense and rebounding.
As a result, forward Matt Hill and center Alex Light combined for 34 points and 25 rebounds, hitting 13 of 19 shots from the field. The 6-foot-5 Hill finished with 20 points and 11 boards, while the 6-foot-6, 295-pound Light had 14 points and 14 boards.
“When a shot goes up, Alex and I try to get on different sides,” Hill said. “We always joke about who’s going to get the most rebounds. It’s always good to have a little bit of competitive fun down there.
“I mean, he’s a hoss. He really is. If he’s on that one side, he’s going to get it if it goes to that side. I’m just going down the court in transition because I know he’s got it.”
Grafton (28-3) didn’t miss much early, jumping to a 9-0 lead as 6-foot-6 Clippers star Elijah Moore was doing his best impression of NBA star Kevin Durant.
However, Troy Mann’s defense helped contain Moore to 21 points, and that was not enough on a night when Grafton guards Tyler McMillan and Joey Miller combined to shoot 3 for 16.
“Will got in their guards’ heads,” Hill said.
The 5-foot-7 Pratt and the two Grafton guards engaged in plenty of discourse throughout the game. McMillan fouled out with 2:05 to play and left the floor after the awards ceremony so flustered that he flipped his runner-up medal under the bleachers.
“It was just friendly conversations,” Pratt said with a smile.
Salem recovered and eventually took the lead for good in the second quarter on a 3-pointer by John Repass.
Hill provided two key baskets in the second half, the first one putting Salem up 36-31 at the end of the third quarter when he took an inbounds lob pass from Mann, scored and hit a free throw after he was fouled by Miller.
It was not the first time in the postseason the same play has worked.
“I always walk to the top of the key and tell Troy to lob it up,” Hill said. “The defender’s eyes get real big when he sees that. He thinks he’s going to go steal it and get a dunk by himself. Then Will sneaks out of nowhere and gets a screen on him when he’s looking at the ball.
“It’s wide open every time.”
Hill, who played quarterback on Salem’s football team that reached the state semifinals, scored the Spartans’ last bucket with 3:29 left when he was on the receiving end of a fullcourt inbounds pass from DeVonte Joyce.
It was nearly the same play that clinched Christiansburg’s 2012 Group AA championship over Grafton when Brenden Motley — also a football quarterback — switched roles and caught a long pass.
Saturday was the greatest single day of basketball in Timesland history.
Floyd County’s girls and Radford’s boys won their fourth state championships. Salem’s girls won the Division 4 title just before the boys game as the Spartans matched Radford’s 2011 feat of having both teams win a championship in the same season.
It was right up their alley.
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