FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Bill Bennett stood behind one hoop near the front door at the Fairmont Senior Field House, sounding less dejected than expected moments after his Robert C. Byrd boys basketball team let a golden opportunity slip away in Monday’s 64-58 loss to Fairmont Senior.
The vetern Eagles’ coach found reasons to be optimistic as he watched his squad shoot nearly 50 percent (26-of-53) against one of the state’s most athletic and versatile teams.
“Overall I’m proud of our kids, because I felt like we forced them to go zone, because the cutting and screening in our offense was working so well and we were getting a lot of easy shots,” Bennett said. “We weren’t forced to take perimeter shots and we were getting inside stuff off of our offense. It was a great effort for our kids and something we want to just build on.”
Yet Bennett was also as aware as anybody that the Eagles (12-4) squandered a 26-13 lead that became a 15-point advantage early in the second quarter.
Even after taking only a 33-31 lead into halftime, RCB still led 55-53 with 3:20 to play when Khori Miles scored inside for what proved to be the team’s second-to-last field goal.
“They gained a bunch of confidence with the game at our place and felt like they belonged on the floor tonight with this team,” Bennett said. “I mean that respectfully, becuase they’re awesome and well-coached.”
In RCB’s first meeting this season against Fairmont Senior back on Jan. 5, the Eagles trailed 48-44 with 5:10 to play, but never made another field goal in a 54-46 setback.
RCB’s only other losses this season were a six-point defeat at Oak Hill and a four-point loss at Elkins.
While an opportunity awaits tonight for a quality win against Frankfort (12-2), the Eagles already have several notable wins in the form of three-point victory against a two-loss Bridgeport team, two triumphs against Lincoln (11-6) and victories over Winfield and Wyoming East to start the season.
A victory against the Falcons would likely allow the Eagles to enter the postseason with at least 17 wins as they seek their first trip to the state tournament since 2016.
It’s the final go-around for senior guard Tanner Kennedy, who joins junior wing Khori Miles and a trio of sophomores — Gavin Kennedy, Bryson Lucas and Blake Meighen — as the team’s starting five and top five scorers.
Miles, at 15.5 points per game, leads the way. His penetration causes a lot of problems for opponents and he scored 35 points in two meetings against FSHS, including 22 on 10-of-17 shooting in Monday’s matchup.
Gavin Kennedy, the younger Kennedy brother, follows at 13.6 points, while Lucas is at 11.4 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Tanner Kennedy shows 9.3 points per game to go with 5.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists, while Meighen adds 6.9 points on average.
The Eagles aren’t likely to possess more height than most opposing teams, yet their length, athleticism and ball-handlers make them a tough matchup.
Additionally, as the trio of aforementioned sophomores continue to gain experience against quality competition, RCB should be taken seriously as a threat to not only get to Charleston, but win for the first time at the state tournament since 2014.
“They can really shoot it, but their thing is drive the ball and drive it down your throat until you stop it. That’s how they played and consequently, we didn’t stop a lot,” said Fairmont Senior coach David Retton, hardly sounding like someone whose team had improved to 15-1. “They continued to drive the ball, got scores and then if they got a miss, we didn’t always box out. It was a long, frustrating night for us and Byrd played really, really well.”