FREDERICK — After heaving a last-second 3-pointer off the glass that gave Thomas Johnson a 14-point lead through one quarter, Richard Rivas turned to the suddenly quiet Tuscarora student section with a cold-blooded glare. The 5-foot-9 junior guard absorbed the taunts hurled his way and let it fuel his steely brand of ball.
Rivas, who wears No. 0 for Russell Westbrook — the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, known for his sheer intensity — prides himself in everything that comes with the jersey number. He wants to play with a chip on his shoulder, attack the basket willingly and pester opponents with toughness. On Friday night, in their rival’s gym down the road, Rivas did all the above and helped lift Thomas Johnson to a 65-57 win.
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Rivas scored nine of his 15 points in the first quarter, where he set the tone early with three trips to the free throw line and crowd-hushing buckets.
“I like how [Westbrook] plays the game. I like his mentality. I like how he attacks the hoop and gets to the free throw line. He’s not scared of nobody. That’s how I take it, like him,” said Rivas, who added five rebounds and an assist in a turnover-free outing. “No matter how tall I am, what my weight is, I’m going to go at you.”
When Tuscarora lurked, down 7-5 midway through the first quarter, Rivas helped turn up the defensive intensity that started a 10-0 run. He also capped the seperating stretch with a triple, which gave his team a 17-5 lead. Minutes into the second, Rivas swelled the Patriots’ lead to 33-14 when he fearlessly drove into the heart of the Titans’ 2-3 zone and canned a pull-up jumper.
“He’s a real tough kid,” Thomas Johnson coach John Manley said of Rivas.
Though Tuscarora began to chip away, Rivas keyed a defensive performance in which Thomas Johnson (9-2) held the hosts to 38 percent (19-for-50) from the floor. The Patriots mixed up a stingy man-to-man defense with a lengthy 1-3-1 zone, and kept the Titans offense quiet when they needed to.
The Patriots led 41-26 at the break and 54-42 after three, but Tuscarora (7-4) managed an 8-0 run that got them to 54-49 with six minutes to go.
“There were probably three possessions where we took some bad shots, got a little selfish there and then I said, when we got a timeout, ‘Listen, we have to back to the game plan,’ ” Hanley said. “I told them, six more possessions and we got this. They did a pretty good job of closing it out.”
For most of the first half and down the stretch Friday, Thomas Johnson resumed its unselfish play that’s upstarted a five-game winning streak. Five players scored in double-figures: Rivas, 6-4 forward Braxton Foreman (14 points, six rebounds, four assists), 6-5 forward J.R. Powe (12 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and three blocks), 6-3 guard Zay Brooks (12 points, eight rebounds and four assists) and 6-6 center Bennett Commander (10 points, eight rebounds).
“We’ve found joy in playing with each other,” Rivas said. “We’ve found joy in everybody scoring. That’s the most important part, if we’re all happy, then we’ll win games.”
Thomas Johnson also pulled down 16 offensive rebounds and had 18 second-chance points.
The Patriots’ only blemishes are a 75-60 loss to No. 25 Oakdale to open the season and a humbling 56-45 loss to under-.500 Watkins Mill. Since then, they have five wins by an average of 24.8 points, with the mindsight to reach the program’s first state tournament since 2002.
“That is our ultimate goal,” Hanley said. “But we try not to get too high. We try to keep them humble. And this is a good group that does that.”