Never Over: Blue Ridge roars back to beat Miller for state title

Photo by Bart Isley

Blood was still seeping out of Savion Helm’s nose and he slowly limped his way back to the locker room.


Still, he was smiling. Bloodied, bruised and hurt, but satisfied with the result.


“We worked so hard this year, just countless hours in the gym and that’s what pushed me,” Helm said. “My teammates that I really love pushed me.”


Helm’s grittiness was the kind of effort an all-out battle between Blue Ridge and Miller called for, to stuff your nose after absorbing an elbow to the face — from a teammate it appeared — to stem the bleeding and get back in the fight.


The Barons needed every ounce of fight they had to rally from a 13-point first half deficit and pull off a 61-53 overtime win that featured the best aspects of two local schools in their third-straight meeting in the VISAA D2 state championship game. The win gives the Barons their sixth all-time VISAA title and their third in the last five years.


“(Miller) played harder than any team we’ve played all year,” said Blue Ridge’s Chris Rogers. “For us to be down that big in the first half, we were losing a little but we knew if we just kept at it, keep pressuring the rock, keep taking good shots, keep sharing the wealth it’s going to come out in our favor.”


The game required the kind of effort that Chris Rogers, who had 13 points, showed on the play where Helm got hurt — an elbow to the nose that appeared to be friendly fire from Jaden Frazier. As the ball careened out of the scrum down low, Rogers gathered it near the sideline just before it went out of bounds, spun, set his feet and buried a 3-pointer.


“We’ve been in the trenches for a while, through the bad, the good, through the alright,” Rogers said. “I love the saying that the grind doesn’t pick favorites, if you just stick to the work and keep your work ethic the same, good things are going to come.”


The game required the kind of effort that Michael Gray, who had 15 points, three assists and six rebounds, gave on the press as Blue Ridge tried to get over the hump as he swiped the ball three times in the closing minutes and shook off one steal and finish that rimmed out and would’ve been a huge play. Instead of sulking, he just came up with another steal.


“It was play hard or go home — just put everything on the line,” Gray said. “I had to make up for the first one that I missed, I had to make a play.”


The game required the kind of effort that a bloodied Helm flashed on the final play of regulation, grabbing a rebound and forcing a shot up to draw a foul with 3.2 seconds left. Then Helm, who led Blue Ridge with 18 points, calmly hit both free throws to tie the game and send it to overtime.


“I was really nervous, earlier this year we faced Woodrow Wilson and had free throws to try and tie the game and I missed all three so I just thought back to that moment and thought this is redemption,” Helm said.


Before all that, the game required the kind of effort Andy Nwaoko put in earlier in the second half, with a pair of putbacks that cut into the Miller lead as part of his 12-rebound night. Frazier and Helm each chipped in six boards each.  


Nwaoko’s rebounding, Rogers’ three, Gray’s late steals and Helm’s free throw shooting (he went an astounding 13-for-14 at the line on the night) were all part of a furious effort in the fourth quarter, where the Barons seemed to trail by one basket for an eternity. Each time it seemed Miller had finally dealt the final blow, had done enough to prevail, Blue Ridge just refused to go quietly.  


In fact, Miller coach Danny Manuel appeared to have navigated the team’s intense foul trouble quite well, a repeat of the team’s semifinal appearance where DaeDae Heard and Tariq Balogun both fouled out with significant time left. This time, Balogun, Heard and Jordon Brown all had four fouls before the end of the third quarter. Manuel inserted all three back in early in the fourth and for a while, the move stemmed the growing Blue Ridge tide. Heard had a strong finish at the rim, Daryl Anderson buried a three and had a huge drive and one play that felt at the time like the dagger.


But struggling to break the press, including Gray’s absurd run of steals in the closing minutes, cost the Mavericks as they couldn’t, in turn put the game away.They got an excellent chance to do that when Blue Ridge drew a technical foul in the last two minutes, but Miller made just one of the four ensuing free throws, leaving the door open once again for the Barons.


In overtime, the foul trouble for Miller clearly had its impact, and Blue Ridge knocked down 10 of 10 free throws to pull away, with Helm providing an emphatic rim-rocking dunk signaling the fight was finally over.


The win was the culmination of a plan for Blue Ridge, a team that bought into coach Cade Lemcke and his staff’s plan of hard-nosed packline-style defense. That’s not always an easy sell with the talent that Blue Ridge enjoys, but the Barons’ seniors like Rogers, Helm, Ernesto Torres, Dhruv Mehrotra and Jaden Frazier bough in and put in the work it required, particularly over the last two years as that group came together.


“Our seniors stepped up and made some huge, huge plays.” Lemcke said. “The leadership that they’ve shown from March 4th (a year ago) through today has been tremendous and that’s the reason why we were back and that’s the reason why the game was never over.”


Never over. Not until, Helm, bloody nose and all, made his way back to the locker room. Not until the state title was headed back to St. George.