Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2013



MONROE – The fans behind the Riverside bench chanted, “Cory! Cory! Cory!” as senior center  Cory Costanza walked off the court for the final time as a Rebel, having fouled out of Saturday’s Class 2A championship game.

“I had butterflies,” he said. “This is the best way I could ever think of finishing my senior year.”

Costanza played just 17 minutes in his final game, but he certainly made them count. He scored 15 points and drilled three crucial 3-pointers down the stretch, earning honors as Outstanding Player as Riverside captured its third championship in the past four seasons via a 60-49 victory over St. Thomas Aquinas.

It is the 10th state championship for Riverside coach Timmy Byrd, and perhaps one of the least expected at the season’s outset. After the graduation of the majority of a senior-laden squad led by current Baylor star Ricardo Gathers, Byrd ushered in a new rotation laced with freshmen and sophomores, no juniors and just one senior.

“This is the youngest team I’ve ever had win a championship,” Riverside coach Timmy Byrd. “They’re all great character guys, the type of guys you wouldn’t mind seeing marry your daughter. That makes this special.”

The Rebels (27-5) had to execute beyond their collective years, though, in a game where St. Thomas Aquinas refused to concede anything. Riverside led by 12 early in the second half, but STA clawed back to eventually take a 44-42 lead on two Vincent Walker free throws with 5:21 remaining.

“Our kids took their best punch,” said Byrd. “Our kids have been in these situations so many times. They’ve got so much experience playing good teams that they know how to handle these pressure moments.”

Malik Crowfield tied things up on a putback. Then it was Costanza’s time to shine as he drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer with 3:26 remaining. Hunter Gebbia answered for the Falcons, drilling a 3 of his own from the corner 20 seconds later.

But then another Costanza 3 got the shooters roll, bouncing up off the rim and back in to put RA back up by three. The biggest blow came next when Herb McGee recovered a loose ball in the midst of a scramble and found an open Costanza, who sunk his third straight 3 to give RA a 53-47 lead.

“Herb went to the ground and got the ball, and got it to me. It was a bit lucky,” said Costanza.

“He made two really, really big 3-pointers. Then he almost slammed the door with his third three,” said St. Thomas Aquinas coach Errol Gauff. “We came out in the second half and tried to wear them down … (Costanza) was in foul trouble, so maybe he wasn’t leg weary. We tried to chase them off the 3-point line, but in the end the 3 was what did us in.”

That turned out to be a back breaker, as the Rebels were able to take care of the ball and force St. Thomas (23-6) to foul with time winding down. Riverside’s Von Julien and Jordan Andrews combined to sink 7 of 11 free throws to close things out, and the Rebel defense held the Falcons without a field goal for the last 3:05 of play.

“We’ve start a group of five guards and wings, and two things make them really special,” said Byrd. “They’re very tough, and they’re willing to play defense.”

McGee finished with 13 points for Riverside. Julien scored 11 to go with five assists and Crowfield scored 10. Jordan Andrews registered five steals.

Vincent Walker led St. Thomas Aquinas with 17. Kaylan Richardson scored 11.

While most of Riverside’s rotation is full of underclassmen, many played as reserves on last year’s state finalist that fell in the final game to champion John Curtis.

This washed a bitter taste out of the mouths of those returning.

“This just feels great,” said Crowfield. “After not getting a ring last year, it’s really rewarding. I was real nervous last year, but this time I was ready.”

Added Andrews, “Coach Byrd is tough on us. But without him pushing us to get better, we wouldn’t be here. It felt good to get this one for him.”

The Rebels forced 20 turnovers in the game while committing only nine. Of those nine, none were live ball turnovers. Riverside registered 11 steals to none for STA, a team known for its ability to pressure the ball.

“We knew they played great defense and would be really aggressive,” said Julien, the Rebels’ point guard. “So we had to come out and be focused and protect the ball. We couldn’t afford any bad or unforced turnovers today.”

The Rebels led 28-16 at halftime, but went cold in the third quarter. RA shot 42 percent for the game, but just 23 percent in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, a STA team not known for the long ball sank 3 of its four 3-pointers in the third as Julian Brumfield, Gebbia and Richardson each sank one, Richardson’s ending the third and cutting the Rebel lead to 37-36.

“We never gave up. We felt like this was our game,” said Walker. “But I guess their offense was just better than our defense at the end.”

Said Byrd, “To St. Thomas’ credit, they went to their strength. I thought we did a good job playing defense in the first half, then we got a little passive once we were in a little foul trouble.

“We couldn’t be as aggressive … They weren’t really a 3-point shooting team during the season, but they shot it well tonight.”

McGee shook off a tough semifinal game and came out the gates hot in the final, scoring on a putback and a 3 early in the first quarter.

“I put it behind me,” said McGee.

“Coach and I had a talk, and he told me to go out and forget the last game and give the team what it needed from me this time, to go out and play hard. That’s what I did.”