Published 12:37 pm Friday, March 9, 2012



RESERVE — Riverside and John Curtis split the District 10-2A championship this season.

But there’s no splitting a state championship.

Unlike the battle for district between the teams, there must be a winner today as the Rebels and Patriots square off at noon today in Ruston to decide the Class 2A championship.

Riverside (36-9) and Curtis (26-3) have been atop the Class 2A poll together all season, each taking a turn at the top as the season rolled on. Curtis overtook the Rebels after hosting and defeating Riverside in the first district battle between the teams, 85-66; it was the first time in the three-year Timmy Byrd era at Riverside that the Rebels had been knocked from the top spot.

The Rebels reclaimed that familiar perch after topping the Patriots in a track meet of a district rematch, 105-93, at Riverside. A third, non-district game between the teams went the Rebels’ way before district, though that game was contested without Curtis’ leading scorer Malik Morgan and center Dillon Gordon.

Curtis is seeded first and Riverside seeded second; as St. Thomas Aquinas coach Vyron Keller put it last week after the Rebels’ 20-point victory over his Falcons, “Everyone got it right.”

“The bottom line is that Curtis is probably a top three or four team in the state, regardless of classification,” said Byrd. “Malik Morgan is a great player and their point guard (Richard Durant) is really phenomenal.

“They’ve got all the pieces. They’ve got size inside, the big kid going to LSU (Gordon) that kind of neutralizes our advantage with Rico (Gathers) a little bit. Two unbelievable athletes on the wing at 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5. They can do a lot of different things.”

For Riverside, a win today would all but clinch recognition as a dynasty, a third straight state championship for a school that, prior to 2010, had never so much as reached the state quarterfinals. For a handful of Rebel seniors, a win would mark the fourth state ring in four seasons, after winning a state championship as freshmen at Reserve Christian under Byrd, who now guides them at Riverside.  

“That would mean the world to me,” said guard Rebels Donald Thomas Jr., who’s second on the team with a 14 point average, and also grabs eight rebounds a game and 4.3 steals a contest. “To do it every year in high school, that’s something I’ll probably be the only guy in my family to have a chance to do. So that’s special.”

But for opponent John Curtis, it would represent the first championship in school history. It would represent the realization of a dream.

It’s a fact not lost on Byrd.

“We can’t afford to be complacent, absolutely not,” he said. “Our kids have a lot to play for. Not many people can say they won four state rings, and a number of our guys have that opportunity. They can go out on a high and each can cap an unbelievable career here.”

Gathers and Morgan each are ticketed for high-major programs. Morgan has committed to LSU, Gathers to Baylor. Each has also had up-and-down success against the other team. Gathers had a subdued 12-point scoring performance in Curtis’ victory, but exploded for a game-high 26 in the rematch; Morgan scored 25 in the Curtis win, but just 13 in the loss. For the season, Gathers is averaging 21 points and 17 rebounds. Morgan is averaging 17.3 points per game.

Byrd knows what Morgan is capable of if he gets rolling; the 6-foot-3 Curtis senior scored 50 in a close loss to Riverside as a junior.

He, and his team, is determined to not let it happen again.

“The whole gameplan is to not let him get going,” said Byrd. “It’s the same with Durant, because they’re hard to stop when they’re playing well. We won’t help off them … we guard those two for 94 feet and make them work extra hard, which they’re not used to having to do. We were able to do that last time out.”

Said Thomas, “He’ll pull up from anywhere and shoot it. If we make him work, he’ll get tired. We can’t give him any room.”

The Curtis win over Riverside was the first district loss Byrd had in 13 years, including his days at Reserve Christian. In some ways, he says that’s a positive.

“It might be better that we didn’t beat them twice, and come in today and maybe take them lightly. Because I think in the first matchup our kids might have done that a little bit,” said Byrd. “We didn’t play with a lot of energy in that first game, and that’s the biggest thing for us, the energy.”

Even so, Byrd doesn’t foresee a game that reaches 200 combined points again, given the different venue and larger court, though he’d certainly welcome it.

“It could be in the 80s, the 70s… we want to make it an up-tempo game, to be in the 80s or 90s. If that’s the case, we feel we have the advantage. But if it’s in the 50s or 60s, it’s really anybody’s game.”

And in any event, for the most successful senior class in Riverside basketball history, it will be the last time on the court together.

“It’ll be very emotional for me,” said Thomas. “I love these guys with all my heart. I’d do anything for them.”