The Robinson Rams play a pretty brand of basketball — crisp ball movement, frequent fast-breaks, open three-point attempts and easy transition buckets make for a fluid offense that would put a smile on any coach’s face. That offensive harmony, combined with a hounding defense that’s equally cohesive, led Robinson to 17 wins during the regular season, trailing only Herndon and Lake Braddock for most in the 6A North Region this year.
But as the rough-and-tumble postseason kicks into high gear, the Rams know that winning pretty won’t always be an option in the coming days.
“We’ve talked a lot to our kids about needing to win ugly sometimes,” Robinson coach Brian Nelson said. “You’re going to play ugly basketball games this time of year when everybody’s desperate, everybody’s putting their best on the floor with the hope of moving on to the next game… The reality is you don’t win by a blowout in conference finals or a regional tournament game. You see two teams fighting, and whoever makes the most plays down the stretch tends to win the game.”
It didn’t take long for Robinson to endure the kind of slugfest that Nelson warned about this week. Against an Oakton team they had blown out by a combined 55 points in their first two meetings this season, the second-seeded Rams found themselves teetering on the brink of an upset Tuesday night, leading the Cougars 50-48 with under a minute to play in the Conference 5 semifinals. Oakton senior Dale Good was hitting everything in sight, eventually nailing a three that cut his team’s deficit to 56-55 with 1.8 seconds to go.
Like any playoff contender worth its salt, the Rams staved off the late scare with a free-throw shooting clinic. The fourth quarter saw them make just two field goals, but it also saw them go 17 of 19 from the charity stripe, led by senior guard Matt Fall’s 10/11 effort in that final frame.
It was an ugly win to be proud of, one that Robinson believes will bode well in more difficult matchups ahead.
“I think it just shows that if the game gets tight down the stretch, we can make the plays we need to if we just keep moving the ball as a team,” said Fall, who delivered a team-high 19 points Tuesday night. “Anyone can make the play at any time. We’re confident in anyone down the stretch.”
Next up for Robinson (18-5, 8-2) is Friday’s Conference 5 championship against top-seeded Herndon (20-3, 9-1), which beat Westfield 66-46 in Tuesday’s other semifinal. It will be a rematch of last year’s Concorde District final, which saw the Hornets escape with a 51-48 victory.
The Rams fell to Herndon 71-64 on Jan. 10, but managed to exact revenge two weeks later in an 82-67 triumph that handed the Hornets their only loss against an area team this season. Fall and company used their late-game toughness to pull away in that one, outscoring Herndon by 20 points in the second half to secure the win. It was a similar pattern to the one employed against Oakton Tuesday night, a game the Rams trailed 24-20 at halftime.
Beating Herndon again won’t be an easy task, not with the Hornets riding a five-game win streak in which their average margin of victory has been 20 points. This time Robinson will have to deal with a player they’ve never seen before: Brandon Alston, an explosive scorer recently added to Herndon’s already high-powered lineup. The 6-foot-5 senior transfer from Life Center Academy (N.J.) enrolled at Herndon a few weeks ago and played his first game in the Hornets’ regular-season finale against Oakton. Alston, who scored 14 points against Oakton and 13 against Westfield, is still trying to find his comfort zone in an offense that now features five guys averaging double figures.
Regardless of who takes the floor Friday night, Robinson will simply be looking for its well-oiled trapping defense to produce a familiar result.
“The first time, we just took pride in our defense,” Fall said. “They’ve got some good players on their team, but as a group we can lock them up. We’ve just got to focus on that again and I think we’ll be fine.”
Herndon is one of only three teams to eclipse 70 points against Robinson’s stingy defense this season. The Rams can hang in high-scoring duels — their wild 95-91 win over Edison in the season opener is proof — but they’re better off keeping opponents under that 70-point mark.
“We have a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket, but the key to us making a successful postseason run is how we defend,” Nelson said. “We’re certainly not a one-man defensive wrecking crew. We take a lot of pride in defending as five guys on the floor together... If we can play with energy on that end of the floor and play together on that end of the floor, I think that makes it really tough.”
Robinson’s effectiveness on the defensive end starts with senior guard Jared Steen, who was recently named the Conference 5 Defensive Player of the Year. But even Steen hardly stands out in a group that consistently puts the unit above the individual.
“I think if we just play together and keep our focus on defense we’ll be fine,” Steen said. “We know that if we play together we have a chance to beat anyone.”