After every mishap this season, Rocky Mount Prep boys’ basketball coach Don Reams reminded his team about Plymouth.
Watching film: Plymouth did this.
A lazy practice: Plymouth did that.
An unfocused, yet 40-point win: Plymouth, Plymouth, Plymouth.
“That’s always going to ring a bell,” senior forward Donte Samuels said.
There has been enough talk because at 7 tonight No. 5 Rocky Mount Prep faces top-seeded and undefeated Plymouth in the third round of the NCHSAA 1-A boys’ basketball state playoffs – 363 days since the last time the two teams met.
The Jaguars’ entire season has been leading up to tipoff.
“We see them as a road block on where we are trying to go,” Samuels said. “It’s two hungry teams fighting to get to the state championship, going head-to-head.
“Whoever wants it more is going to come out on top.”
Last year, that was Plymouth (25-0), which rallied from a double-digit deficit thanks to its up-tempo offense. An undisciplined, unfocused Rocky Mount Prep just allowed it to happen.
The Jaguars were quick in their offense. They were poor defensively and allowed quick buckets on the way to an 8-point loss.
So much has changed in a year.
Or has it?
Reams has preached discipline and focus all season. But even as recently as Wednesday, the Jaguars failed to show it, leading by just seven points before exploding in the second half in an 85-59 victory against Southside
“I think we understand it, but we’re still trying to learn it,” senior guard Jacob Barrett said. “Sometimes when we get up by a lot, we starting playing, we start trying to make big plays, we start trying to dunk a lot. We don’t execute the plays all the time.
“(Tonight), we know we have to execute the plays because Plymouth is a good team. We need to execute to win.”
One year older, the biggest question for Rocky Mount Prep (21-3) is whether the core group of seniors has matured enough to understand that this could be the last game of their high school careers.
“This year, we are sharing the ball,” guard Keneen Deberry said. “We don’t mind whoever scores. That’s what it’s going to take to beat Plymouth. We can’t just come down and shoot, shoot, shoot. We have to play disciplined, pass the ball and execute each play. And play defense.”
While the mentality seems to have changed, the biggest difference in the Jaguars this season, as opposed to last year, is the biggest person on the court.
Last year in the playoffs, senior forward Deshawn Freeman watched from the bench with a knee injury.
This year, he’s healthy and is averaging more than 20 points per game. Freeman has scored more than 20 points in both of the Jaguars’ playoffs games so far and is shooting 75 percent from the field this season.
Freeman, who has garnered Division-I attention, understands the pressure on Rocky Mount Prep.
“It’s a lot of talk going on with a lot of people about all the talent we’ve got, and it’d be a waste if we don’t use it,” Freeman said. “If we go out there and play hard, we should get the win. What happens, happens I guess. ... I wouldn’t say it would be a waste (if we lose), but other people probably would.”
Reams could only find one game in his memory that compared to tonight’s in significance. While at Tarboro, he lost the regional championship and took responsibility for it after his team failed to execute in a late-game situation. He still has cold sweats sometimes thinking about what could have been. He doesn’t want to pass up that chance again.
“The opportunity to win will present itself to both teams,” Reams said. “The team that is the most disciplined, is most concerned with doing the little things, is not caring of who gets the credit is probably going to be the team that comes forth and wins. Hopefully, that’s us, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
With six seniors on the team, each of whom could receive collegiate consideration – some of them Division-I – losing in the regional championship just isn’t good enough.
“That’s why it’s such a big game,” Reams said. “I feel like if they take care of that, they should be playing for the state championship. Again, not taking away from any team that we might meet in Fayetteville.
“I don’t think we’ve reached our potential.”
There are plenty of achievements that this group of seniors has engraved in their ledger.
They made the state playoffs for the first time in school history and won the first playoffs game.
They made the regional championship last year after having just one playoffs win in school history in boys’ and girls’ basketball combined. The number of 100-point games (10) is astounding after achieving just the first one last year.
Even after four straight 20-win seasons by this group of six seniors, Rocky Mount Prep still is shy of its expectation.
“We are because we aren’t satisfied,” Samuels said. “All those accolades don’t mean anything unless you walk out with a ring. All the history we’ve made, the final piece of history we want to make is bringing the school it’s first state championship, which we believe we can do.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org