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Family focus drives Rams into Final Four

After pulling out a victory in the regional finals, the Riverview boys basketball team is headed to Lakeland to play for a slot in the state finals.

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  • | 5:14 a.m. February 25, 2016
After telling coach BJ Ivey four years ago that he wanted to get to the Final Four, Riverview senior D.J. Bryant will lead the Rams in the state semifinals Feb. 26 (photo courtesy Tim Britt)
After telling coach BJ Ivey four years ago that he wanted to get to the Final Four, Riverview senior D.J. Bryant will lead the Rams in the state semifinals Feb. 26 (photo courtesy Tim Britt)
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Riverview High School's D.J. Bryant sat in awe watching the best boys basketball teams in the state vie for an elusive state championship three years ago.

A freshman at the time, Bryant got caught up in the intensity and level of talent on display. He turned to his coach, B.J. Ivey, and told him, “I want to be here one day.” 

It was a long shot. The Riverview boys basketball team had only made one trip to the Final Four. That was in 1993 — five years before the Riverview point guard was born. 

Now a senior, Bryant's made good on his goals. On Friday, Riverview will play for a shot at the state championship, a feat that's eluded the Rams for more than two decades.

At the first summer practice in June, the team sensed something was different. The Rams had what Bryant could only describe as the "it factor." The players began buying into the system. They had faith in not only their own abilities, but those of their teammates, as well. 

The summertime bonding led to stellar regular-season results for the Rams, ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 8A. With the addition of Brion Whitley, a standout transfer from Sarasota Christian, Riverview rolled into the Class 8A-Region 2 finals Feb. 19 versus Vero Beach. 

After seeing a sizable lead slip away in the second half of that game, the Rams' season nearly came to an end. Ivey called a timeout and reminded his players to trust in the process — a mantra that's guided their standout season. 

It was the last home game for Bryant and fellow seniors Dominic Caldwell, D’Myron Wright and Micah Fenn, but their teammates made sure it wasn't their last game as Rams. Led by Whitley, who scored a team-high 27 points, the Rams scored the final seven points of the game to beat Vero Beach 74-69 and earn a berth in the Final Four. 

“It’s just a blessing,” said Bryant, who has helped lead the Rams to a 28-2 record. “We’re trying to take it day by day, moment by moment, like coach said — brick by brick. That’s something he preached back in the summertime.”

About as quickly as the Rams scored those seven points down the stretch, the players were back on the court preparing for what’s to come: a date with South Miami in the Class 8A state semifinals Feb. 26, at the Lakeland Center. Tip-off is set for 2 p.m. 

The Rams will face a 22-8 South Miami team, which notched an overtime victory in the regional quarterfinals and pair of victories decided by three points or less in the regional semifinals and finals. 

The Rams haven’t lost since Jan. 16 and are averaging 70 points per game while holding opponents to just 49.9 points per game. Ivey wants the team to maintain the mentality that's served them well this year.

“The biggest thing for them right now is to trust the process,” Ivey said. “We’re not going to change who we are in a week. We’re pretty good at what we do, so we’re just going to continue to get better at those things.”

The winner of Friday’s game will advance to the state championship game Feb. 27 to face the winner of the Winter Park-Coral Springs semifinal. Tip-off for Saturday’s state final is set for 7 p.m.

More than anything, the Rams are looking to spend another week together as teammates. Riverview has spent eight months preparing for this moment. Whether it’s on the court, in the weight room, watching film, attending weekly team building activities or hanging out at the beach, the players have grown together as a unit. 

They are a family. They love each other. They work hard. And they would like nothing more than to bring a state championship back to the school and the community that has supported them throughout the entire process. 

“We feel like if we keep doing what we’re doing and stick to the process, everything else is going to take care of itself,” Bryant said. “It’s kind of surreal. We knew it would happen. We had faith it would happen because we put in the work and had faith in each other. It’s just a blessing, and hopefully, we can make the most of it.” 


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