Hector "R.J." Dixon and Reading topped State High on Saturday in a battle of ranked PIAA 6A teams. (Photo: Michael Bullock/CoBL)
Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
CAMP HILL — Watch Reading’s hoops-happy group crank up the high-octane drive and determination, whether early or late, and one quickly gets the sense these guys would be willing to spill blood for their teammates and not just gallon after gallon of perspiration.
Sure, Rick Perez’s bunch is typically decked out in reddish-tinted jerseys and shorts, but they could easily add a blue stripe here or there and it would be perfectly appropriate.
All Reading seems to do every time the basketballs appear is work. While there’s enough talent on hand for Perez’s Red Knights to squirrel away their share of results, the additional effort that comes into play enables the reigning PIAA Class 6A champs to wear out capable adversaries.
Such was the case — again — Saturday night at suburban Harrisburg's Trinity High School as Reading overcame an early double-digit deficit by cranking up the on-court temperature, making some in-game adjustments and outworking the opposition en route to a 75-66 victory over State College in the fifth and final game of Play-by-Play Classics’ Trinity Showcase.
Balance also helped Reading’s cause, as seniors Xavier Starks and Hector “R.J.” Dixon combined for 37 points while leading the Red Knights (16-2) to their 10th consecutive victory.
“We just need to be ready to play,” Dixon admitted. “We’ve been with each other since third grade.”
Newcomer Larry Wingo chipped in 13, Ricki Lopez tacked on 12 and Wesley Butler finished with 10 for a Reading squad that trailed State High 15-3 some five minutes in before roaring back to win.
It’s also the second consecutive weekend during which Perez’s streaking Red Knights have taken down an unbeaten, ranked squad in impressive fashion, joining last Saturday’s 65-56 conquest of Hazleton in the fifth-and-final game of Reading’s Geigle Shootout.
As for Saturday night’s scrap, Reading came in ranked seventh in City of Basketball Love’s Class 6A state rankings — four spots below State College (16-1). Princeton-bound Drew Friberg topped the Little Lions with 23 points, while Tommy Friberg and Brandon Clark added 12 apiece.
The 6-5 Clark, who will walk on to the Penn State football program his father, Bruce, starred in nearly four decades ago, led the Little Lions with eight rebounds and five assists before fouling out. State College also played the entire second half without junior lead guard and Penn State football verbal Keaton Ellis, who jammed one of his thumbs during the opening 16 minutes.
What adds even more oomph to Saturday’s scrap is these squads could meet again at some point in the PIAA Class 6A tournament — assuming both qualify. If so, it should be another dandy.
Yet even though Reading was able to slice into its deficit despite Drew Friberg ringing up 14 first-half points — the 6-1 Wingo hopped off the bench once Daniel Colter was assessed his second foul and brought it, pocketing eight first-half points — the Red Knights still trailed 34-30 at the break.
Thirteen first-half turnovers also pestered the Red Knights.
“It’s been like that the whole season,” Dixon added. “We’ll start off slow and we’ll come back. We’ll talk at practice about how we’ve got to come out fast and finish fast.”
“They have to learn to play with confidence and success, so I think it took that early punch in the mouth,” Perez added. “They were in that 3-2 zone and we couldn’t get the ball in the corner, which they won’t let you do and you can’t make that sideline pass. They took a lot of that away.”
Wait, there’s more.
“Watching game film, they’re not built for the energy that we have,” Starks continued. “A lot of teams can’t pick it up [like we can]. Once we did that, the game changed.”
And Reading’s energy level really increased once Wingo checked in.
Playing in just his fifth game with the Knights since relocating from Pottstown, Wingo added nine boards while battling State High’s taller and longer frontcourt every time the ball went up.
“He’s a senior leader on our team,” Starks added. “When you have a senior with experience like that, and is that strong and can get the rebounds without thinking about it, it’s good for the team.”
Once the third quarter began, Starks took over, collecting 12 of his 20 points by knocking down a pair of treys, one mid-range jumper, slicing to the hoop once and canning two of three free throws.
“Going into halftime, I just felt I was slacking,” admitted Starks, who had eight first-half points. “I told my teammates I had to pick it up, because big games like this they’re gonna need me, as well as we need the other guards. So, once I hit that first shot, it was a wrap.
“I just picked it up on defense, because defense drives my game,” said Starks, who also grabbed three rebounds and dished out five assists. “Once that happened, I felt I was unstoppable.”
The 5-10 Dixon really came on in the fourth quarter, ringing up nine of his 17 points to keep the Red Knights in front down the stretch (5 of 7 at the line).
Dixon also snared six rebounds and spent much of the game trying to check 6-6 Drew Friberg, a terrific perimeter shooter who can also get to the hole.
“Coach called me yesterday and said I’m guarding a Division I prospect, said he’s going to Princeton,” Dixon recalled. “The whole night I was thinking that I’ve really got to play defense and really step my game up. … I just wanted to be focused and ready to play him.
“He’s a good player.”
Dixon also was inspired to even greater lengths since his grandmother is ill.
“State College will always be a good team,” Dixon said. “Hazleton will always be a good team. But State College is over and now we’ll only just worry about our next opponent [Exeter].
“It was a good win, but that win is over.”
Bottom line is this program — just months removed from its first state championship — isn’t about to surrender its crown without a serious scrap. Dixon and Starks, key reserves a year ago when the Red Knights bested a terrific Pine-Richland side at Hershey’s raucous Giant Center, are taking over where the likes of Lonnie Walker, Isiah Cook and Tyrone Nesby left off.
“Hector Dixon and Xavier Starks are cornerstones of not only the Reading High basketball program, but also the community,” Perez admitted. “They built this team from a young age, so we have to trust in them for what they do. They’re very poised, hit some amazing shots, did some amazing things.
“R.J. found himself with the ball at the end and made some great decisions for us. Wingo just fits. Their brotherhood really embraced him and he respects hard work. They say, ‘If it ain’t blue, it ain’t right.’ These guys genuinely believe in one another and it brings out the best in everyone.”
State College was just the latest squad to encounter Reading’s relentless approach.
“Thery’re an amazing team with a lot of multi-sport athletes,” Perez said of the Little Lions. “We just had to match their physicality and realize you can’t throw 20-foot passes against four football players, so we knew we had to take better care of the basketball.”
“We always knew it was about identity and I think they have secured their identity,” Perez stated.
And Reading’s identity begins and ends with two incredibly simple words — hard work.