Riverview has won nine straight games.
Getting the lead doesn't matter if you don't carry it to the end.
The members of the Riverview High boys basketball team know this well, by now. The Rams (15-5) struggled with closing out games early in first-year coach Rudy Fraraccio's tenure. Four of the team's five losses have been by five points or less. Two of them ended in overtime.
"We have squandered leads," Fraraccio said. "During that [early stretch], I was learning who we can trust on the floor down the stretch to make the right play. We were finding the right combinations."
The Rams also put an emphasis in practice on playing smart: Making the right pass, getting the crucial rebound and playing Velcro-tight defense. There's only so much a team can practice before being tested in a game situation, and the Rams finally passed a test on Dec. 26, beating Booker High 69-61 and not letting the Tornadoes threaten the lead.
As it turns out, that win was only the beginning. The Rams have won 12 of their last 13 games as of Jan. 23, including nine in a row. Four of the wins have been by five points or less, a reversal of their earlier misfortune.
The team's senior captains — guards Matteo Catena, Marquel Bryant and Alain Kalisa — say the reversal is no fluke, instead something that has been a long time coming, a result of the team's dedication to getting better.
"My sophomore and junior years, we had similar issues," Catena said. "I think it's a learning experience that we had to go through. Playing on varsity and going through a bunch of games, learning the right plays to make and not turning the ball over in costly situations."
"If we are up five, we will find a way to make it two," Kalisa said, laughing. "Our team gets too hyped when trying to score. We have done a better job of keeping calm and listening to our coaches. We have been pulling the ball out more and not trying to force a shot."
When the Rams are on top of their game, they have a multitude of ways to win. Fraraccio said one of the things that brings the most pride in him is the team's diversity of scoring options. Some games, the team's forwards find room to dominate, like when juniors Jayven Millien and David Mazon combined for 40 points and 12 rebounds in a 58-50 win against Newsome on Jan. 17. Other times, guards such as Kalisa (17 points) and freshman Jason Jackson (14 points) get hot from long range, like in a 65-60 win against Booker on Jan. 20. The Rams also hit seven free throws in the final 50 seconds against Booker, something Fraraccio was happy to see.
With regular season games lasting through the end of the month, the Rams will soon turn their attention to the district tournament, where foes such as Lakewood Ranch and Hillsborough County's Riverview High stand in their way. The Sharks beat the Rams by three points on Jan. 7, while Lakewood Ranch won one of the Rams' overtime games 84-79 on Dec. 12.
Fraraccio is hoping his team's streak of heady play will continue through the postseason.
"We have the work ethic," Fraraccio said. "They worked hard in the offseason, mainly September and October. We couldn't even get in the gym yet, but there were a lot of days of conditioning and a lot of days of lifting weights.
"We alluded to that during our overtime victory against Fort Myers [High, on Jan. 18]. We are in this tough part of our season, and we said, 'Well, you know, back in September, in October, we had a tough part of our preseason and back then, you guys made the sacrifice and put the energy and effort into it. Now we're at last seeing some some fruits of that.' We just have to keep it up and keep finishing games."