What was a contrast in styles for Rutherford in its Region 1-5A semifinal on Tuesday might be more of a referendum on execution starting 7 p.m. Saturday.
The Rams, 25-2, entertain Bishop Kenny, 21-8, with a berth in the boys basketball Final Four at stake.
After surviving Rickards 39-35 in the semis in a struggle that the Raiders successfully turned into a halfcourt possession by possession marathon, the Rams are expecting to see more of a mirror image in the Crusaders.
“They use the 3-point shot as a weapon, run a lot of motion, use the dribble drive,” Rutherford coach Rhondie Ross said. “They are very sound fundamentally.
“They are a big challenge, but they’re a lot like we are. The two tallest guys are six-three and six-four.”
Bishop Kenny eliminated Palatka 57-47 and Baker County 53-48 to reach this stage. The Crusaders are attempting to repeat a Final Four appearance that last March ended a 34-year drought of not advancing to the state semifinals. They lost to eventual champion Jesuit in Lakeland.
This is Rutherford’s fourth region final in five years, however, the Rams never have won a region championship on their home court and haven’t earned a trip to Lakeland since 2010 when they made the Class 4A field.
Ross said that the relatively low scores in Kenny’s region victories doesn’t mean the Crusaders prefer a deliberate style.
“That is misleading,” he said. “I watched them against Palatka and they pressed them. They’re just disciplined.”
And like Rutherford, often strikes from long range to augment its attack. Whereas the Rams try and go to Khaliel Spearman, Josh Wade and Gabe Steele, along with Keith Arts in certain situations, the Crusaders counter with a number of snipers.
Among them are 6-foot-4 sophomore Chris Joyce and 5-9 senior Korey McDougald, Ross said. He described 6-3 sophomore Christian Carlyle as Kenny’s best player.
“He really can score the basketball,” Ross said. “He can flash to the basket, hit short jumpers … they try and get the ball in his hands.”
Ross said that both offenses stretch a defense to contest the perimeter, which could be one of the games within a game.
“It’s an area of concern for them and an area of concern for us,” Ross said. “We need to identify their strengths, and I think they’ll do the same things to us.”
At this point of the season Ross said that he still breaks down tape of the preceding matchup before completely focusing on the next challenge, He might watch it once for enjoyment, take a few notes the second time through and then try and view his club through an opponent’s eyes to get a preview on where it will concentrate its forces.
“Especially if I know they have” the tape, Ross said.
Dorian Moore, a 6-1 senior post player for the Rams, might not garner too much attention on film, but since the playoffs began has elevated his performance while often facing opponents 4-6 inches taller.
“He’s throwing his body around; he’s playing like a senior who doesn’t want his high school career to end,” Ross said.
The Rams not only showed they could survive an elimination game whose focus was on defense and clutch free-throw shooting, they rewarded their largest and most vocal crowd of the season in the process.
“I thought that was one of the more pro-Rutherford games,” Ross said. “I think a lot of people in this community wanted to see us beat Rickards. Rickards has a mystique about them.”
In addition to fans of other county schools supporting Rutherford, many past Rams returned to back a program they helped establish at an elite level.
“The buzz I’m getting is that we’re going to have a really good crowd” against Bishop Kenny, Ross said. “It’s a great feeling when the former players come back.
“I just hope the fans in Bay County come out and support us. Our kids deserve a packed house. I’m hoping (the crowd) will be a sixth man for us and be a pivotal part of the game.”
Should Rutherford advance, the Rams will play a state semifinal on Friday in Lakeland against the winner of Eustis and American Heritage (Plantation).