After four years roaming in the proverbial wilderness, Richland made it to the basketball promised land again, but just barely. The team ended up on the periphery and didn’t get to taste the milk and honey.
A semifinal defeat to eventual champions Herkimer College saw the quest for another national title prolonged.
It was Richland’s first appearance at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Championship since 2015 when they won it all.
In the first game, Richland trumped Middlesex County 91-87 in a frantic encounter after a sluggish start to the game. In the second game, Richland locked horns with Herkimer College in the semifinal. The Herkimer Generals were steadfast, holding on to win, 63-59.
Richland head coach Jon Havens was pleased with his team’s effort and asserted that on any other day the result would have been different.
“I thought it was a great game. I think Herkimer and Richland were the two best teams there and it was a dogfight,” Havens said. “It came down to a four-point game. We did not shoot the ball particularly well, but we guarded well, which [gave us] a chance to be there at the end.”
In a game billed as the unofficial final, the attacking intent of both teams took a backseat. Defense was the game of the day. Richland came into the tournament as the No. 1 defense in the country, while Herkimer was the No. 4 defensive team. Herkimer employed a 3-2 zone defensive system, pinning three defenders to guard the basket and forcing Richland to attempt more free throws rather than drive to the net for layups.
But within the first 40 seconds of the game, Richland’s Caleb Williams spotted a gap to open up the scoring. Williams charged toward the Herkimer defense after a turnover and capped his run with a layup to set the frenzied tone for the game.
The floodgates were open. Richland and Herkimer exchanged attacks. Two minutes into the game, Richland’s David Shepard attempted a free throw that skimmed off the inside of the rim and back out. Shortly after, Herkimer’s Darius Hines found himself in a similar position and he didn’t fail. Hines sunk a three-pointer to give Herkimer the lead.
Herkimer turned the tie on its head. The team’s relentlessness saw it finish off the first half 27-21.
The second half started in the same fashion as the first half ended. Herkimer was resolute in defense and efficient in attack.
With seven minutes left on the clock, the Herkimer Generals were leading by 14 points. The Thunderducks increased the tempo and tried to claw back into the game. Richland’s Williams and Rashad Perkins traded shots to get Richland on the scoreboard.
With 40 seconds left on the clock, the Thunderducks managed to decrease the deficit to five points. The score was 60-55, but it was a little too late to salvage the game. Herkimer scored three more points and Richland scored four more. Herkimer won 63-59.
“I think they were just really pretty dang good, and it made it harder on us to go score. I think our defense [made it] harder on them to score as well. I honestly think if you put us against Herkimer five times, I’d put money that we’d win three out of five. But on that particular night, they were better than us,” Havens said.
Williams finished the game with 20 points and nine rebounds. It was his lowest scoring game of the NJCAA national tournament.
“They [Herkimer] were good defensively. They ran a matchup of 3-2 zone,” Williams said of his opponents. “We started off the game slow. Our defense picked up as time went on. Herkimer is a good team. If you start off slow against them, it’s going to be hard to come back.”
A day after the loss to Herkimer, Richland faced off against Central Lake College in a placement game.
Richland dismantled Central Lake 92-78 to seal third place. Williams notched 26 points and 12 rebounds, Shepard hit 24 and Rashad Perkins added 15 points to lead the team to victory.
“It was the last time us sophomores were going to play with each other and the last time the freshmen were going to play with us. We just wanted to end it off on the right foot [and] go back to Dallas with some sort of plaque,” Williams said.
Williams was the talisman for Richland throughout the season, leading the team in scoring. He finished the season averaging 19.9 points per game, an improvement from his freshman average of 8.6.
Williams was named to the NJCAA all-tournament team. “I felt good. And being blessed enough to be on the all-tournament team is just a blessing,” Williams said. “Coach Havens, coach [Brian] Graham, they really molded me. [They] helped me with my shot selection. They’re a big part of who I am now on the basketball court.”