This time of year, a basketball team needs to have a certain look in its eyes, a countenance of confidence and resolve and refusal to be intimidated.
The La Vega Pirates have that.
Maybe it’s because the Pirates have won nine straight since the key components of their roster came together in late January. Maybe it’s because two of La Vega leaders — starting center Kedrick James and sixth-man guard Kemoche Hobbs — have state championship experience as members of the Pirates’ 2015 football team.
But whatever it is, the Pirates, though unranked in the final TABC Class 4A rankings of the season, have their goal set as high as it can go — a state title.
“The boys’ basketball team hasn’t won state since 2000,” James said. “It will be really good if we could have two state championships in the last four years with one senior class.”
The Pirates (24-9) are going to need all of that confidence, determination and probably a healthy dose of true grit when they face top-ranked Silsbee at 8 tonight at Sam Houston State’s Johnson Coliseum.
La Vega returns to the regional tournament for the second time under coach David Drafahl, who led the Pirates there in his first year back at his alma mater in 2013. They join District 17-4A rival Connally at the 4A Region 3 tournament as the Cadets will face No. 7 Houston Yates in tonight’s first clash at 6:15.
Both Central Texas teams have steep challenges in front of them, particularly the Pirates, who have to find a way to contain the flying Tigers.
Silsbee (30-5) is averaging 109 points in the playoffs after crushing Houston North Forest, 124-84, in the regional quarterfinal on Monday.
So by Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after throttling Lorena 74-41, La Vega was hard at work in its gym game planning for Silsbee.
The Pirates edged Liberty Hill in the second round of the playoffs, overcoming a double-digit deficit for most of the contest by outscoring the Panthers 29-9 in the fourth quarter. La Vega raced past Lorena in the second quarter with a 16-2 run that gave the Pirates firm control.
But La Vega will likely try to avoid an up-and-down-the-court track meet in the regional semifinal.
“With Silsbee, it’s going to be a little bit different,” Drafahl said. “I’m trying to make them understand it’s ok to go get layups and score if the opportunity is there, but you don’t want to get in bad habits.”
That’s where the look in the Pirates’ eyes comes into play. La Vega seems confident it can play with Silsbee on the Pirates’ terms.
“We’re just going to go out there and play with a chip on our shoulder,” La Vega senior guard Amani Gibson said. “We aren’t taking anybody lightly. We just go out there and play 100 percent.”
Perhaps even more convincing is James’s attitude about his senior basketball season. The Alabama football signee seems to be approaching this basketball season like these are his last days as an athlete.
On Tuesday night, he scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to lead the Pirates past Lorena.
Football future aside, James is leading the way as La Vega is locked in on their current hoops run.
“Coach Drafahl preaches every practice that you never get a chance to put a jersey on after this season for some players,” James said. “I think some of the underclassmen understood that, how important it is to the seniors.”