There is one remnant of that 2011 quarterfinal Wildcats (19-11) team in Josh Lay — now a junior — who traveled and dressed as a freshman, but didn’t see much time on the court. Top-ranked Miller Grove (26-3) is relatively different in the names on the roster, but the name on the front of the jersey has won four straight state championships.
The second-seeded Wildcats will look to stop that run tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the second round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs in Lithonia.
And if anyone thinks this Villa Rica team is going to enter the game intimidated, they don’t know these Cats.
“We’ve got to play good, there’s no doubt about that. They’re the No. 1 team in the state for a reason. They’ve won four straight championships for a reason, but our guys aren’t going to back down. That’s what I like about this group. They’re not arrogant, but they’re very confident. They might miss their first 10 shots, but they’re betting on every one that every one is going in. They don’t get down and if they do they’re not down for long,” VR coach Jason Robinson said.
With four seniors on the roster, the Wildcats aren’t the most experienced group, but they have put in the hard work. For Kelvin Bonds, Xavier Hughes, T.J. Davis and Delano Mims, it is a chance for them to cap off their careers by making some history.
“It is a big deal. It’s their chance to do something special and feel like they’ve accomplished something and it shows them that all the hard work they’ve put in, there is a reward for that. I think that’s the kind of stuff that keeps them coming back, playing hard and coming back to work,” Robinson said. “They’re not ready for it to be over. This senior class, they’ve done all that we’ve asked of them. They’re definitely not ready for this ride to be over. We want to win as much for ourselves, but for [the seniors], as well.”
When the team met at the end of last season, again over the summer and before this season started, it put in place goals. Some the VR coach said they’ve achieved, but there is plenty left this group wants to do.
“It feels good to know that we still have a chance to put a banner up on the wall and make something happen, make history. I feel we can accomplish something here. We’ve got a lot of talent to do it, too,” Hughes said. “It’s nice knowing that you have a good coach and teammates that are going to have your back all day, every day. It feels good.”
Gone from the Wolverines are the top Division I college prospects like Tony Parker and Brandon Morris, who went on to play at UCLA and Georgia, respectively. That doesn’t mean Miller Grove still doesn’t have plenty of talent.
This year’s group is led by a pair of seniors in Kyre Hamer and Earl Bryant, along with junior Keith Pinckney, who all average more than 13 points a game and then some role players that come in and help out. Robinson described the three as having different strengths as a slasher, shooter and ball-handler.
In the 2011 meeting, the Wildcats were able to keep it close for a half before eventually falling, 79-54, as Miller Grove was able to break the press and work the ball inside. This time around, VR will stick to its bread and butter and try to win doing what it does best.
“I can tell you this for sure, if we try to change now, we’re not going to be successful. We’ve got to do what got us here and that’s get after people. If they’re successful and beat our press, then they’re going to be successful. If they have trouble, then that’s going to give us a chance and all we need is a chance. I know if our guys stay in the basketball game, the more tired those guys will get and the more confident we’ll be,” Robinson said. “We’ve got to go out there, play our style, play hard and hope it’s good enough.”
The Wildcats are getting ‘free basketball’ this week, according to Robinson, as the team is playing and practicing over Carroll County Schools’ winter break. Now they hope some momentum can carry over from the region tournament and first-round win into tonight.
“We were just trying not to be history, the first team to lose [at home] in the state playoffs. All our guys were out there playing to win, not playing [not] to lose. That’s a great feeling to have everybody out there connecting on offense and defense. That’s all you can really ask,” Davis said. “We weren’t even supposed to be here in this situation losing eight, nine games in a row. People said we couldn’t do it. But coach said it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish and that’s our motto. We’re going to stick to that, keep playing strong, take it one game at a time. From now on, we’re 0-0 just trying to be 1-0. The team that wins these next three games wins the championship.”
The attitude coming into the game is that you have to beat the best to be the best. While VR would probably like to wait to face the defending champs in the finals, it isn’t worried about the second-round matchup.
“It means a lot. Everybody has put in a lot of work during the season, in the offseason. We all really wanted to be at this point this season,” Bonds said. “When it comes to better competition, I actually play better, play to a greater standard. Other guys, it probably doesn’t phase them. Could be a boost to play harder and stronger.”
Even with everything at stake — a return to the elite eight and defeating Miller Grove — there is one more thing to play for, another home game. If the Wildcats pull off the upset, they will return to ‘The Box’ one more time. VR will still take the same attitude though — one game at a time.
“That does mean a lot. But that being said, if we get past this round, we not only beat a very good team, but we sort of take their seed in the tournament. They’re a one seed, we’re a two seed. We would have another opportunity to play here and that would be huge, to be honest, to play one more here knowing if you won that game, you’re in the final four. That’s special right there,” Robinson said.
In the end, the Wildcats aren’t chasing down that 2011 squad — they are going for their own piece of Villa Rica history.
“It’s a good thing. We’ve still got to stay focused. We aren’t done yet. We want to win a state championship and put a banner up,” Mims said. “We’re not necessarily trying to be like them or do anything they didn’t do. We want to do what we can and make a name for ourselves without saying what the other team did a couple years ago.”