ST. GEORGE — The fourth quarter of Thursday night’s clash between Blue Ridge and Middleburg Academy displayed an entire game’s worth of twists and turns.
The final four minutes alone featured several interactions between opposing coaches and students, a costly technical foul and some untimely misses at the charity stripe.
Through all of the peaks and valleys, there was Blue Ridge big man Mamadi Diakite.
The 6-foot-10 center nearly collected a triple double (16 points, 11 rebounds, and nine blocks) as the Barons held off Middelburg, 57-56.
It did not show up on the stat sheet, but Diakite bothered Middleburg’s Myles Lewis’ as the 5-11 junior attempted to win it for the Dragons in the final moments. Trailing by a point with 13.2 seconds left in the contest, Lewis shook off Diakite and the relentless Baron defense and tried to win the game with a 3-pointer. Unfortunately for Middleburg, Lewis’ shot clanked off the rim twice and Blue Ridge survived the late Dragon charge.
Not a single second had ticked off the clock before Diakite announced his arrival on Thursday night, as the big man won the opening tipoff without ever having to leave his feet.
Before most fans had even taken their seats, Diakite already had scored four points and swatted away two Dragon shot attempts. Diakite brought the crowd to its feet in the fourth quarter when the lengthy big man simply reached up and snagged a Middleburg shot attempt out of the air. The junior took several short breaks, but whenever he was on the floor, the Dragons were extremely cautious when taking the ball to the low post.
“That was probably Mamadi’s best overall performance, at least this year,” said Blue Ridge head coach Bill Ramsey following the win. “He almost had a triple double and he did a lot great things. He played a lot of minutes and didn’t even look fatigued.”
The Barons trailed from the late first quarter all the way through the fourth, before Ramsey decided to fully take advantage of his team’s superior advantage in the paint. Ramsey paired Diakite with fellow big man Amir Sims, and the long-time head coach abandoned the team’s trap defense and elected to switch to straight man-to-man. The Barons swallowed up the Dragon attack and forced six Middleburg turnovers in the closing minutes.
“We do a lot of Mamadi and Amir not together, but we know we had a great advantage with both of them in there,” Ramsey said. “We balanced that with how much pressure and how much quickness we want, and today it really worked out to have both of them in there at the same time.”
The Blue Ridge offense responded to the play of its defense and managed to chip away at the Dragons’ slim, but consistent lead in the fourth quarter.
Despite being headlined by its tall and imposing frontcourt, it would be the smallest player on the court, Malik Johnson, that made the biggest play of the night. After Diakite pulled Blue Ridge to within a point, the 5-9 speedster stole the ball at midcourt and sprinted to the hole for the go-ahead layup.
The Dragons tied the game at 49 several minutes later, but Middleburg head coach Jaye Haggler let his emotions get the best of him at the most crucial time of the game. Following a reach-in foul on the Barons’ end of the court, Haggler proceeded over to the stands and banged his hand on the bleachers.
Haggler was whistled for a technical foul, and junior Scott Spencer connected on four straight free throws to give Blue Ridge a four-point lead. Following the quartet of freebees, the Barons built their largest lead of the night after Johnson found a leaping Sims for an emphatic ally-oop.
Blue Ridge led by six with less than two minutes to play, but the Barons went 0-4 from the charity stripe in the final seconds, which gave the Dragons a chance to win the game at the end.
“There’s no question that we had a better fourth quarter,” Ramsey said. “We went with the bigger lineup, and we got a six-point lead. If we just made some free-throws, it’s not a heart attack in the making.”
The Barons travel to rival Miller on Saturday night.