When the final buzzer sounded, Roosevelt's coach Rob Nickens felt the emotion of the moment begin to swell inside his body. Student athletes celebrated in myriad ways; some jumping for joy, others collapsing to the floor while the brazen of the bunch found cell phone cameras to confidently proclaim their conquest to.
There was jubilation on the floor of the Entertainment and Sports Arena as the proverbial David had just slain Goliath. Parents and family members began making their way to the court to join the celebration, but alone on the sidelines stood Nickens, now with tears streaming uncontrollably down his face, appearing to not want to get too close in fear of finding out it wasn’t real.
“This is a dream come true. I’ve prayed about it, continued to work hard and believed in the vision,” Nickens said. “This has been a five-year chase. Everybody gave up on us, but we didn’t give up on each other.”
It was very real. The Roughriders just won their first DCIAA championship since 2014, and they’d done so by defeating arch-nemesis Wilson 66-63. The Tigers were the three-time defending city champion. They’d defeated Roosevelt in each of those championship games.
“To do it on this stage after being down double-digits is incredible,” Nickens said. “ The kids never gave up -- that’s what I’m so happy about. We’ve been city champions before, but nobody really gave us credit for that.”
Despite architecting a one-loss season and entering the tournament as the 1-seed, Roosevelt knew in order to earn ultimate validation, they’d need to go through Wilson, a program which beat them soundly on the EAS floor 92-48 in the previous year's championship game.
Coach Angelo Hernadez’s team jumped out to an early first quarter lead. Wilson's ball pressure forced turnovers, allowing the Tigers to run in the open court and score 13 first-half points in transition. Behind strong starts by Darren Buchanan and Nasir Best, Wilson led 33-28 at the half.
The Tigers extended their lead in the third. Jay Young Jr.’s four-point play pushed the lead to nine. As the quarter came to a close, it appeared as though Roose would meet the same fate it had in the previous three championship matchups between the teams. Nickens implored his young men to look inside themselves and remember what got them to this point.
“We just had to put pressure on the ball and play the way we played all year,” Nickens said. “ It’s no need to get to this stage and change. We’d been doing the same things the last 29 games and we were 28-1.”
Nickens knew in order to knock off the prolific Tigers, he’d need a total team effort, so with the game in the balance and leading scorer Jasir Tremble being contained, he turned to reserve guard James Pitts to drive the Riders home. Pitts responded by making countless big plays on both ends of the court, scoring 19 points and calmly sinking 11-of-12 from the free-throw line.
According to Pitts, responding to the pressure of the moment came second-nature to him.
“We shoot 150 free throws a day,” Pitts said, “so the crowd noise didn’t bother me. I just felt like I was there by myself at the free throw line.”
Pitts’ exploits helped him earn game MVP. Nickens knew his junior guard was capable of coming up big in big moments.
“He’s played well all year for us. Just because you don’t start at Roose doesn’t mean you can’t be productive,” Nickens said. “His minutes were big -- he scored, what, 14 points in the 4th quarter? He’s a warrior.”
Roosevelt accomplished one of its goals by winning the DCIAA city championship. Nickens will now set the team's aim on the DCSAA states.
“I’ve won a state championship before,” Nickens said. “You have to play every game like it’s your last, but we’ll be ready. Trust Me!”