Harper and Rams look to add to their legacy with another state final appearance

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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Few teams in the entire state have ever had a run like what the Valley Rams have experienced the past two years. This epic run is due for another defining moment on Wednesday as the Rams take on Fairfield in the 5A semifinals at Legacy Arena in Birmingham. 

The matchup is obviously important with it being the Final Four, but these two teams have also been ranked in the top two of 5A all season, with Fairfield being ranked first. The winner of the game on Wednesday will not be immediately crowned champion, but they would be the favorite heading into the championship game on Saturday. 

The Tigers got to this point after beating Ramsay 52-48 in the Northwest Regional final, and Fairfield has an overall record of 27-2. 

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On the offensive side, the Tigers are one of the best shooting teams in the state. In the game against Ramsay, Fairfield shot just over 48% from the field and 50% from three. The Tigers also missed only two of their 14 attempts from the charity stripe. 

“They shoot the ball well from outside,” Valley coach Marshon Harper said. “They get the ball down low and hit shots. Transition, have to slow them down on the fastbreak and limit fastbreak points.” 

Fairfield’s offense runs through Josiah Jones. Jones was named tournament MVP at the Northwest Regional after finishing with 21 points in the championship game. At five-foot-eleven, Jones is not the biggest guy on the floor, but his speed and finishing at the rim make him a tough player to guard. 

“I think he takes the ball off the dribble well,” Harper said. “Gets to the whole a lot. Just have to play some good help-side defense on him. He has knocked down some outside shots also. Just a good all-around player. Just have to pay attention to him, not just one person playing defense on him but the whole team playing defense on him.” 

Milton Jones is another major contributor for the Tigers. Jones stands at six-foot-five and is a dominant presence down low. 

Ju’maria Hamilton will be another player for the Rams to stop in the paint. Demarcus Williams and Jeff Duncan are Fairfield’s best shooters from the outside and will play a major role in the game on Wednesday. 

Valley’s focus in practice leading up to this matchup has largely been focused on the defensive side and on shooting from the outside. 

“Just playing help-side defense, getting to our spots, trying to shoot the ball a little better from the outside, kind of establishing something inside,” Harper said about the team’s focus in practice. 

“Just working on our defensive rotation. It’s been good, but it can get better. Just trying to fine-tune things and trying to go into this game firing on all cylinders.” 

Valley’s offensive attack led by Cam Dooley and Brandon Thomas has been well documented over the past two seasons, but it is the Ram’s intensity on the defensive side that has propelled them into the semifinals. 

From top to bottom, every athlete and coach involved at Valley has bought into the philosophy of defense winning championships. 

“That’s what we start off doing,” Harper said. “Most people start off shooting layups in practice, we start by working on defense. We do ladders, we do ropes, we jump bags, we jump hurdles. We’re working on footwork at the beginning of every practice. We strive it on defense. Defense creates offense so we have to be great on defense.” 

Dooley has led the charge for Valley this season, averaging just over 23 points per game. Thomas has followed with nearly 15 points per game this season. 

For Valley to reach its goal of winning back-to-back state championships, Harper is looking for the players surrounding Dooley and Thomas to step up and play a huge role on Wednesday. 

“Jayden Thomas, need him to step up big for us Wednesday [and] get it going early,” Harper said. “Ian Crim-[Davis] has to step up for us. Jay Harper, the same way, has to step up big for us. Hopefully, the two people inside, they can handle getting rebounds, put back and doing most of the blocking shots and all that stuff.” 

Nearly every starter for the Rams is averaging double-digits in scoring, but the second unit has been an ongoing process throughout the season. Early on, Valley did not get many minutes from the bench, but the group has developed through the late parts of the season. 

“We’ve got to have some people come off the bench this time too,” Harper said. “Antwan Greenwood has to be huge for us with rebounding the ball. Galvin Goss, Jayden Weaver and some of the other kids, we have to have some production out of them. I tell them all the time, it doesn’t matter if you score, two or one. Scoring that one point could prevent us from going to overtime. Just have to get some production from them.” 

Valley has a deep group of seniors this season that have been the main producers on the floor, but some of Valley’s younger players have made a large impact on the Rams through their work in practice. 

“We did a scouting report on Fairfield,and they’ve been doing that Fairfield does,” Harper said. “They’ve been simulating the trap. They’ve been simulating playing defense, being tough [and] playing physical. They’ve been doing a great job of doing that. Hats off to those guys. They don’t get all the glory, but they’re an important part of the team. We don’t go this far without them.” 

The Rams are past the point of one game defining them, but Wednesday’s game could add to an already dominant legacy that Harper and the five seniors have built at Valley. 

“It’s big,” Harper said. “We went undefeated last year, and that was unbelievable. We created history, but to go back to back will be just amazing. You don’t do this stuff for a lifetime. This is 25 for me, and most people retire at 25 [years]. I don’t know what the future holds for me. We’ve got to get it done now. You’re never promised to get back here. It took me 25 years to get here, so it might take another 25 years. I’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity.” 

Harper graduated from Valley, has coached at Valley for 25 years and has raised his family in Valley. Harper’s son, Jay, has been there throughout the process and the two have been a part of the program since Jay was a kid. Wednesday’s game, and potentially a game on Friday, do not just cap off a dominant run, it will be the end of an epic journey between a father and son. 

“We started this journey at a young age,” Marshon said. “Just to see Jay and all his teammates just be dominant in what they do. They’re top of their craft in football and basketball. Being the number one team last year, to winning it all. It’s unbelievable. I’d like to take them out on top.” 

The Rams will tip off against Fairfield at 5:30 P.M. ET on Wednesday with a trip to the 5A state championship on the line.