ROCKINGHAM — At the end of Tuesday’s practice, head coach Donald Pettigrew shared an anecdote from his playing days with the Richmond Raider basketball team.
During the 1997 run to the state title game when Pettigrew was a senior point guard on the team, a lot of doubt was cast on Richmond entering the regional championship against Seventy-First High School.
Pettigrew rattled off the names of several players from that Seventy-First team that went on to play Division I college basketball.
He recalled how none of that criticism or speculation impacted the 1997 Raiders, who advanced to their second consecutive 4A state championship with a 56-49 win over the talented Falcons.
Pulling it back to this year’s postseason run, Pettigrew said the 2023 Raiders are “more talented” than his old team and addressed the elephant in the gym — Myers Park High School, the top-seeded team in the 4A West.
The upcoming state title bout will be the second time the Raiders and Mustangs will play each other this season. On Nov. 22, Richmond’s second game of the season, the Raiders lost 78-37 on their home floor to Myers Park.
Since that game three and a half month ago, Pettigrew said a lot has changed and the loss hasn’t loomed.
The reunification of Paul McNeil Jr. with the Raiders less than a week later, back from Prolific Prep in California, coupled with a breakout season from Jullien Cole, are two of the major differences heading into Saturday’s game.
What hasn’t changed is how the Raiders felt after that loss, just one of two games Richmond hasn’t won all season. Now that stinging loss has morphed into an intense motivation that Pettigrew said is driving the Raiders’ shot at redemption on the biggest stage.
“This team has a mindset of we do what we do,” Pettigrew said. “They still have to play us and our guys are ready for the challenge. It doesn’t take much to motivate our team, but that loss gave us a lot of extra motivation now we’re here at this point of the season.
“We know what’s at stake, so our energy is already up. We have two seniors, Dakota Chavis and Zion Baldwin, who will play their last game no matter what. I think the game is also personal to Paul because he wasn’t with us the first time.”
Unlike their previous five playoff games, the Raiders have had a full week of practice to prepare for the Mustangs, and will cap it with a workout at UNC-Pembroke on Friday.
The week has been a balance of managing the pressure of playing for a state championship with the team also enjoying the process.
Pettigrew noted that “practice has been good” this week and that the coaching staff and players are implementing new wrinkles into their game plan for the Mustangs.
Making adjustments on both sides of the ball have been focus points for the Raiders, while the standard of tough defense and rebounding has also been reinforced.
The Raiders enter the championship game on a 21-game winning streak, the longest in program history. Averaging 77.8 points per game this postseason, Richmond has defeated Purnell Swett, Sanderson, Lumberton, Jordan and Holly Springs.
Defensively, the Raiders have allowed 60.2 points against a game, while winning the five playoff games by a margin of 17.6 points per game. Richmond won by double digits in each of its first four games before edging Holly Springs by eight points.
The top offensive producers over the past five games for Richmond have been McNeil Jr. and Cole.
Averaging 24.8 points per game during that stretch, McNeil Jr. has scored 30 and 35 points in the past two rounds. Firing at a clip of 46.8% from the field, McNeil Jr. has been a catalyst on defense, averaging 8.8 rebounds per game and 2.0 steals.
Cole isn’t far behind with 22.6 points per game, and has been a three-point scoring machine this postseason. Including breaking the single-game program record with 10 triples against Purnell Swett, he’s connected on 24 total three-balls (45.4%) and averaged 5.6 boards per game.
Zion Baldwin’s defensive play in the post has been spectacular since the playoffs began, as he’s averaging a team-high 10.0 rebounds per game and adding 6.2 points per game. With five blocks, he had three of them against Holly Springs.
Pettigrew said “every guy has to do his job” in order to bring home the hardware on Saturday. Players who will see a lot of minutes on the floor are Chavis (6.4 PPG, 3.0 APG), junior guard Javian Drake (8.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and junior shooting guard Jamarion Wall (5.6 PPG).
Freshman starting guard Jayden Hamilton will have to continue his intense play on defense, as he’s wreaked havoc on opposing offenses with his speed and ability to pressure shots and create turnovers.
When it comes to Myers Park, Pettigrew said the Mustangs are similar to a recent playoff opponent. They also boast a trio of players with over a dozen college offers each, according to 247Sports.
“Myers Park is a little like Holly Springs,” Pettigrew shared. “They run lots of screens for their bigs, who are strong and get good position in the post. We need to do a good job of being physical and communicating on defense to limit their chances.
“They run a lot of man defense and they’re also physical. That means we really have to value possessions, make the right decisions and make it as tough on them as we can.”
When asked about the rematch from Nov. 22, Pettigrew said there’s no true marker since it was so long ago and both teams “have gotten better since then.”
“There’s a 50-50 chance of who wins. We have to come ready to play and we’re ready to finish the job,” Pettigrew closed.
Tip-off between Richmond and Myers Park High School is set for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The game will be played at the Dean E. Smith Center and Richmond fans are encouraged to sit in sections 100-108 and 126-133. The school has also decided on a “gold out,” as Myers Park fans will wear green.
Below are some quick hits about the Myers Park Mustangs:
- The Mustangs are coached by Scott Taylor and are on a 14-game winning streak. The team has gone 6-2 on neutral sites this season.
- To get to the 4A state championship, Myers Park defeated South Caldwell, East Mecklenburg, A.C. Reynolds, Charlotte Catholic and North Mecklenburg high schools.
- During the regular season, the Mustangs won the South Mecklenburg Conference title with a 12-0 record and won the conference tournament. The team’s last loss came to Carmel Christian on Jan. 14.
- This postseason, Myers Park has averaged 77.0 points per game, tied with Holly Springs for the highest of any of Richmond’s playoff opponents.
- Defensively, the Mustangs have held their playoff opponents to just 41.2 points per game and have an average margin of victory of 35.8 points over their last five games.
- Senior center Elijah Strong leads the team with 15.4 PPG, one post player Pettigrew said the offense runs sets through. He has a dozen college offers and is second on the team with 5.4 rebounds per game.
- Sir Mohammed, a junior guard, is second on the team with 13.6 PPG and 5.4 RPG. He’s ranked No. 9 in the state, three spots behind McNeil Jr., and has 15 college offers.
- Junior Bishop Boswell and senior A.J. White Jr. are double-digit scorers with 11.7 and 11.3 PPG, respectively. Boswell has 14 college offers and White’s 6.0 RPG lead the team.
- A team with a lot of height, similar to Holly Springs, Myers Park has 14 players over 6-0. Strong and White Jr. are both 6-8, Mohammed is 6-6 and Boswell is 6-4.
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