By Thomas Grant Jr.

The Class 4A boys basketball title is back in Northeast Columbia at Ridge View High School.

A year after losing to Wilson in the second round, the nationally ranked Blazers returned to the Pee Dee area looking to complete “unfinished business.” It accomplished that goal with the 58-52 victory over Riverside Saturday at the Florence Center.

“The buy-in was big,” Ridge View head coach Joshua Staley said. “The kids that were here were bought in the whole time. The guys that were on this team, they were bought in last year. It just takes time to develop. Most people would call it growing pains, but that’s exactly what it is. We had to grow. We had to learn from each other. We had to learn to love each other, and accept each other for who we were, and I knew we could get to this point.”

In winning the school’s sixth state title and fourth in Class 4A, Ridge View (27-2) overcame fourth-quarter foul trouble for All-State senior Jayden Pretty. He left the game early in the fourth quarter with four fouls and 17 of his team-high 18 points.

Down the stretch, the Blazers got key baskets from Korie Corbett, who finished with 15 points and Joshua Smith, who scored all five of his points in the fourth quarter.

“I owe it all to those guys,” Pretty said. “They got my back. I said in the last one when they were in foul trouble, I said ‘I got you.’ But in this one, it was the other way around. So, they got my back. I got their back, and we came out as a winner.”

This was also the second career title in seven appearances for Staley. Having won previously at A.C. Flora, he joined a list of head coaches with state titles at two different schools.

Those names include Louis Golden, who ironically led Riverside to its last state title in 1988, Willie Thomas, Mark Huff, Carl Williams, and Staley’s high school coach at Hunter-Kinard-Tyler Aric Samuel.

“It’s big and, you know, Aric Samuel is one of my best friends in the world,” Staley said. “And shout out to all the coaches that helped me through. This is Women’s History Month, like the Debbie Stromans, Anne Longs, the Faye Norrises, the Monica Williams. They kicked my butts through the year, but they also picked up the phone when I called. The Artie Knights. So all the coaches that mentored me through it, it feels good because they helped me out so much through the whole process and Aric was one of those coaches.”

The Blazers continued the weekend-long trend of teams having fast starts. They scored the game’s first eight points, forcing nine of the Warriors’ 17 turnovers and holding them to one field goal in taking a 17-4 lead in the first quarter.

Riverside opened the second quarter with a 6-0 run. A 3-pointer by Malachi Cooper helped build Ridge View a seven-point lead, only to have Drew Cannon convert a 4-point play to make it 24-21.

Pretty took charge of the Ridge View offense, scoring six of their last eight points to give it a 32-24 halftime advantage.

Riverside cut into Ridge View’s lead to 45-39 going into the fourth quarter. Things got even more perilous for the Blazers with 7:32 left as Pretty picked up his fourth personal foul on a layup by Mikel Skinner.

Forced to work time off the clock, Ridge View looked to score on every possession. Smith gave the Blazers some breathing room with a 3-pointer to make it 48-41 with 6:36 left in the game.

The teams exchanged points before Cannon’s 3-pointer bounced high off the front rim and through the nets to bring the Warriors within 52-48 with 3:32 left. Ridge View managed to take over two minutes off the clock as Pretty returned to the game with 2:46 left and Smith converted 1-2 free throws.

Riverside third-round hero Jack Sauer scored on a putback with 1:07 left to make it 53-50. After free throws by Pretty and Corbett, Iturbe hit a layup with 32 seconds left to bring the Warriors to within 55-52.

Riverside did not score again as Yale Davis made two free throws after he was fouled with 30 seconds left and Smith added a final free throw after an Iturbe miss with 20 seconds left to close out the win.

“These games are won in the off-season,” Staley said. “The skill development, the weight room, the grind, the time that you put it. That’s when you win these games. You can’t win these games on a night off.”

Currently 11th in the USA Today Sports Super 25 and 25th in the SCNext.Top 25, Ridge View’s title reign in Class 4A will last one year. It and Riverside will move up to Class 5A next fall to seek a third title in that classification.

The Blazers now hope to receive SCHSL approval to play in The Throne tournament March 27-30 at the American Dream in East Rutherford, N.J. A partnership between the National Basketball Players Association and Gold Level Sports and Entertainment, the four-day single-elimination event will feature a 16-team boys field and 8-team girls field from around the country.  

All Photos by Thomas Grant Jr.