ROCKINGHAM — The first matchup was the appetizer. This one is the main course.
Richmond Senior and Hoke County will battle for the second time at 7:30 p.m. today in Raeford with first place in the Southeastern Conference on the line.
“I don’t normally say things like this, but at this point and time in the year, it’s a big game for us,” Richmond coach David Laton said. “It’s going to determine a lot of things in the conference.”
The Bucks are currently 16-2 on the season and 4-0 in conference play, while the Raiders enter the contest 14-4 overall and 4-1 in the SEC.
The Bucks and Raiders have proven themselves to be the two best teams in the league at the halfway point. Hoke has won its four SEC contests by an average of 22.5 points a game, while Richmond has defeated its opponents by an average of 22.7 points in its four victories.
In its last outing, Richmond cruised past conference rival Scotland 79-32. Laton thought it was “one of the best games we’ve played all season.”
“If someone was sitting in the stands, I would hope they would have said ‘they’re really fundamentally sound and in good condition. And they play great team defense,’” Laton said. “It’s a good mile post on our journey.”
Richmond’s lone conference loss came on Jan. 11, in the schools’ first meeting, as Hoke claimed an 80-72 road victory behind 24 points from Tarique Thompson. The game was tied at 67 with 3:34 remaining in the fourth quarter when the Bucks pulled away after hitting 7 of 8 from the free-throw line.
“That’s the wonderful thing about basketball — you get more than one opportunity to play a conference opponent,” Laton said. “I can’t really talk a whole lot about what we are going to do different, but there’s a couple of things on defense. We are going to be aware of certain players and play them certain ways.”
After the loss to Hoke, Richmond had a week to prepare for its contest with Lumberton and another 10 days before playing Pinecrest. Laton thought the unusually long layoffs between games was beneficial to his team, unlike last season when the Raiders dropped four of their next six conference games after getting knocked off by the Bucks.
“This team is much more focused and cohesive,” Laton said. “It was great for us to have the time off because we got a lot of things straighten out.”
On the girls side, Richmond can all but eliminate Hoke from finishing fourth in the SEC and earning the final automatic berth in the 4A state playoffs.
The Raiders won the first meeting between the two teams, 54-31, as Shaquail Wall poured in a game-high 17 points.
Richmond is currently 4-12 on the season and 2-3 in the conference, while Hoke is 3-15 and 0-4. The Bucks are scheduled to make up their postponed contest with Purnell Swett on Wednesday. The Rams are also 0-4 in the league and will face the Raiders Tuesday.
With a victory tonight, Richmond still has an outside chance of finishing higher than fourth in the conference, but would need to win its final four conference contests and receive some assistance along the way.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.