King of Construction

Published 9:16 pm Monday, April 25, 2011

Riverside girls basketball coach Hughes Barber (center) gestures during a game earlier this year. After losing a majority of his starting lineup from the Knights’ state runner up team of a year ago, Barber led Riverside to a 19-8 record to earn the Washington Daily News Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

WILLIAMSTON — It was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The 2010-11 basketball season was going to be the time when all the Four Rivers Conference teams got to give a little payback to Riverside for all the nights Katie Paschal dropped 40 points against their box-and-ones and any other gimmick defense coaches could think of.

After finishing as the No. 2 1-A team in the state last season with a 29-1 record, the Knights graduated Paschal, who finished her prep career as the state’s second all-time leading scorer, along with the team’s top two post players in Cassie Harrell and Shakira Norfleet. On top of that, building-block sophomore point guard Zakkeya Morris, the team’s second leading scorer, transferred to Bertie High School.

The mass exodus meant Riverside’s Hughes Barber would enter only his second season as the varsity coach with only one returning starter in junior guard Courtney Wynn and no player on his roster over 5-feet, 7-inches tall.

Yes, the payback was definitely going to be fierce for Barber, who at one point in the season was not ever sure his team would finish above .500.

However, despite fielding a starting five that consisted of one senior (Charnell Jones), one junior (Wynn) two sophomores (Dasia Moore and Jo’neka Brown) and one freshman (Jalyn Brown) and no player tall enough to even be considered a power forward, Barber’s team went 11-3 in one of the better 1-A conferences in the state.

Of the three losses, only Southside, the Four Rivers Conference regular season and tournament champions, was the only conference team to beat them by more than five points.

Despite having just about every excuse in the basketball book to have a bad season, Barber’s team finished 19-8 overall, placed only one game behind Southside in the conference standings. That kind of over achieving performance is just too good to be ignored, which is why Barber is this year’s Washington Daily News Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.

While transforming his undersized, inexperienced squad into winners seems like a magic act worthy of David Blaine, Riverside did not win with smoke and mirrors. They won with defense.

“I thought our level of effort was great,” Barber said. “The best compliment I get from other coaches when I play them ą they might not say anything about how we execute ą but they will say that our girls play hard and that’s all I can ask for.

“When you have a young team you expect there to be execution issues. We were probably the worst shooting team in America. As a team we probably shot under 30 percent from the field. You wonder how we won games but it’s because we had to put pressure on teams. I think we stole the ball 20 times a game … With a young team we didn’t finish well, but we always played hard.”

Realizing that his team would never be able to win the same way it did a year ago, Barber scrapped his screen-heavy offense as well as a majority of his defensive concepts in favor of new ones that better suited his roster.

“Last year I had Katie here and a lot of things went through Katie. We ran some flex and some three out, two in (the post) sets and a lot of screens for Katie to get her shots,” Barber said. “This year, we didn’t really have a dominant player and we didn’t have any post players either, so we ran a lot of four-guard sets where we did a lot of driving and kicking. We wanted to pass the ball around the perimeter and use our speed.”

That speed would also be a key ingredient in the team’s new pressure-heavy defense.

“Last year we had a 5-8 and 5-10 girl down low so we were able to play teams halfcourt, man-to-man,” Barber said. “This year we were either trapping you in the halfcourt or going fullcourt man-to-man. We wanted to extend the floor and make you speed up. Unless we did that, we weren’t very good.”

Selling a young team on offensive changes may not be that challenging, but getting a young team to play defense can be tough. However, for the Knights playing defense was a prerequisite to getting on the court.

“You’re not going to play for me if you are not going to play defense,” Barber said. “I have a couple of girls on my bench that are probably better offensively than the ones that start but they haven’t quite learned yet that you have to play defense first to get on the floor.”