This is something Abdul Shabazz has worked toward since his freshman year.
This is something Richmond has waited on for 26 years.
The wait is over. Once again, the Red Devils rose to the occasion against a North Central Conference team, and, once again, they are outright champions of the NCC.
The Red Devils climbed the ladder and cut the nets at Tiernan Center after turning away another NCC foe, stopping a determined Kokomo squad 81-73 on Friday night to finish a perfect 6-0 in conference play.
“It’s a great feeling, a feeling I’ve been wanting to feel since freshman year,” said Shabazz, a Richmond senior. “All the hard work has paid off since then.”
This is the third time Richmond has claimed the NCC outright, and the eighth time overall. The Red Devils last had the NCC trophy all to themselves in 1988.
The last conference title for RHS came in 2002. Richmond won its first outright championship in 1943, and also shared conference crowns in 1970, 1971, 1976 and 1977.
“It’s amazing,” said RHS senior Kendal Baker. “We put all the work in, and it just pays off right here.”
Baker’s last-second trey paid off to end the first half.
Instead of forcing a shot with seconds ticking off the clock, fellow senior Mike Tillman made a pass to Baker, who was well behind the 3-point line.
Didn’t matter. Release. Buzzer. Swish. And 40-31 halftime advantage for the Devils.
“Coach (Joe) Luce just told us to keep the intensity up, never let down,” Baker said. “That’s what we did.”
Richmond extended that lead to 14 to start the third quarter after a 5-0 run that saw Tillman drive to the basket for a layup and Davious Webster connect on a 3-pointer.
But, Kokomo hung around.
Just like the previous three years, the Richmond-Kokomo game meant something to the conference standings. And while the Wildkats couldn’t share the title, they could force a tie at the top between RHS and Marion — and extend the seven-game winning streak they carried into Tiernan Center.
Instead, the Red Devils kept them at arm’s length. Richmond’s lead never dipped below five, and the Red Devils made 17 free throws in the fourth quarter.
“I thought it was definitely a championship game tonight,” said Luce. “They (the Wildkats) were a very good team. They are led by (Erik) Bowen and Tayler Persons. They just wouldn’t go away, so I’m proud of our guys.
“We grew up tonight, even more so than what we have throughout the year. There is something about learning how to win championships, and that happened this evening.”
Four Devils finished in double figures. Webster and Baker each scored 15, with Tillman netting 14 points and Joel Okafor 11.
Persons had a game-high 20 for the Wildkats (12-7, 3-3), while Bowen added 19.
“It’s the first time doing it in a long time, so that means a lot to us,” Webster said. “We just have to keep our heads focused.
“(Winning the NCC) means we’re doing something. We’re doing something with our team. We just have to keep our focus and stay together as a team.”
Shabazz scored eight points, with Devin Thomas adding seven and Zach Lett six points and five rebounds.
Auntonio Brown also scored for RHS, while Okafor grabbed six rebounds and Webster four. Isaiah Rader and Nick Thomas also gave Richmond strong minutes off the bench.
That balance has been a major reason the Red Devils are now 17-2 overall and ranked eighth in Class 4A and 10th in the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association poll.
“We just played our game,” Shabazz said. “Up and down, up and down. In big games, we feed off pressure, and we come through.”
Shabazz was one of several Devils to come through at the free-throw line. He hit four in the fourth quarter, with Tillman and Okafor making five each.
Webster and Lett also hit free throws in the final frame.
“It’s harder than it looks, because it is a lot of pressure,” Shabazz said. “But seeing that ball go through the net, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Richmond returns to action tonight, traveling to Mt. Vernon (Fortville).
The Marauders, a semistate team in Class 3A a year ago, are 8-11 after Friday’s 68-48 loss to New Palestine.
“Just a great team win,” Luce said of Friday’s game at Tiernan Center.
” … Our crowd had a lot to do with it tonight, too. When we’re trying to put Kokomo away, we needed a little extra boost, and our crowd did show up and do that.”