SALEM, Va. — Bland County did something unexpected to give itself a chance to force overtime with J.I. Burton in Saturday’s VHSL Group A, Division 1 state quarterfinal game at the Salem Civic Center.
The Raiders responded by doing something that stunned even Norton coach Aaron Williams. And now they’re going to Richmond.
In the waning seconds of regulation, Ervin Beaty kicked the ball outside to forward Alex Keys, who hit a contested buzzer-beating jumper just above the top right corner of the lane to lift Burton to 46-44 win over the Region C champion Bears.
Keys looked like a little kid at Christmas as he turned to face his elated teammates who poured off the bench to congratulate him. Bland County’s Darryl Clark slumped to the floor, inconsolable.
"When Ervin drove, I thought he was going to take the last shot. I just popped out. He hit me. I got a little scared, but I just let it fall,” said Keys, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
Burton (14-14) will play Surry County or Altavista at 1 p.m. on Thursday at Virginia Commonwealth's Siegel Center. The Raiders haven’t been in the VHSL Final Four since Stan Wilson took them to Charlottesville with Reecie Gravely in 1990.
"It’s an amazing feeling. I’ve always wanted to do it. To see it happen and be a part of the team, it’s just the greatest feeling in the world,” said Beaty, who scored 10 points and whose pass to Keys was his lone official assist of the game.
With Bland County having lost starter Chase Hankins to his fifth foul, Williams felt good about the Raiders’ chances in an overtime scenario. It was his intention to get the ball into Beaty’s hands for the final play of regulation. Three Bears defenders collapsed on Beaty when he drove, blocking his view of wide-open Riley Maggard on the weak side.
"He never saw Riley. Bland stopped him and got the ball out of Ervin’s hands and he went to where he had to go, and it was Alex and it went in,” said Williams, who planted a big, sloppy kiss on Keys during the jubilation after the buzzer. “We had something on the back side that actually was open, but that’s all immaterial now.”
J.I. Burton held a 39-28 advantage on the boards, led by McKenzie Blair’s 17 rebounds.
"I couldn’t have done it without everybody else, to be honest. Everybody boxed out,” said Blair, who led Burton with 12 points and blocked three shots. “We finally played as a team the second half.”
The Bears (14-11) tied it up at 44 with 10.4 seconds showing when Asher Dillow, who hit four treys on his way to a game-high 20 points, drove in and evaded Blair’s long arms with a dish underneath to post Jon Miller.
"We made an extra pass, which was something that we’d talked about with this bunch in particular. It was a great play by Asher and good to see Jon step in there and knock the shot down to at least give us a chance for overtime,” said Hankins, who thought his defense bought that opportunity in the final possession when he saw Beaty kick it out to Keys.
"Everything that (Keys) had gotten up to that point was inside the paint or in front of the rim. For him to step up and hit that last shot at the end, you’ve got to give him a lot of credit.”
Bland County led 26-17 at the half, putting itself aloft by hitting four 3-pointers in the first quarter and ending the half by getting a couple more in the final minutes of the second period from Dillow and Tyler White.
A lone trifecta from Dillow was the only other trey Bland County collected for the remainder of the game.
Burton clawed its way into contention, getting a bucket in the paint from Keys, a pair of free throws from Beaty and a transition bucket from Kevin Van Ness to close it to 34-31.
Nearly the entire fourth quarter was a one-possession ballgame.
Burton’s kind of game, as it turned out.
“They were a good 3-point shooting team, but 3-point shooting can be fool’s gold,” Williams said. “They hit them in the first half and didn’t hit them in the second. But we had gutsy defense on every possession. We knew we couldn’t take a break. We told our kids the competition has forced them to play the way they had to play here.”