The South Carroll boys' basketball team had been to the Comcast Center before. But they had never been part of such an unusual strategy.
On Friday night, the Cavaliers' third state semifinal appearance in four years ended with a 46-34 loss to Baltimore City power Lake Clifton. Coach Doug Goff's squad came out ready to run against the Lakers, but that wasn't Lake Clifton's idea.
After taking a 14-11 lead into the second quarter, the Lakers held the ball for nearly an entire quarter, content to wait until the Cavaliers pulled out of its 2-3 zone defense.
While the Cavaliers stayed in the zone, coach Herman Harried's team turned the ball over on its final possession of the quarter and South Carroll junior forward Ryan McTavish canned a three-pointer with just four seconds remaining to send the Cavaliers into the locker room tied at 14-14 and their fans, who had booed Lake Clifton's strategy loudly, into a frenzy.
It wasn't the first time a Goff-coached squad had faced the slowdown. When he was coaching Lansdowne against Southern of Baltimore City in a regional final nine years ago, his opponent held the ball for the entire third quarter and part of the fourth.
"I didn't expect it that early," said Goff of the Lakers' strategy. "I didn't consider coming out of it (the zone) at that time of the game. The strategy made it tougher on us.
"I don't blame them for doing what they thought they had to do to win," he said. "But we had the momentum when Gavin hit that three."
Harried's decision to stall was perplexing, given that the Lakers were more athletic and quicker than the Cavaliers. Lake Clifton had finished a tight, competitive first quarter with a 7-2 run, capped by James Boone's three-pointer and subsequent foul shot with no time remaining that gave the Lakers a three-point lead.
"Coach told us to stay packed in and keep our focus," said McTavish. "If we lost focus, then something could have gone wrong for us."
Harried felt that the slowdown strategy helped his team, and he didn't care about the reaction.
"We've done it before," said Harried, the former Dunbar High and Syracuse University standout who has guided the Laker program to three state championships in his 15 years. "I thought our kids did a great job of showing that they were very coachable. They did what I asked them to do.
"I looked at our players and didn't see any doubt or concern. When we went to the locker room (at halftime), their intensity was still up," he said. "That's probably the longest that we've held the ball, and it won't be the last if we have to."
In the third quarter, the Lakers looked more like the team that averaged more than 75 points a game in regional playoff victories over Chesapeake-Baltimore County, Owings Mills and Edmondson. A short jumper by McTavish gave South Carroll a two-point advantage less than a minute into the quarter, but Lake Clifton scored six unanswered points midway through the period to take the lead for good.
Junior forward Cortell Henson hit a 15-foot jumper to start the Laker burst, which ended when senior forward Aaron Parks converted a turnaround jumper that extended Lake Clifton's lead to 22-17.
But the Cavaliers closed to 24-22 on senior guard Dan Mullen's jumper in the final minute.
Two free throws by the Lakers' Lionel Greene with four seconds left started a game-deciding 15-4 run that gave Lake Clifton a comfortable 39-26 lead with just 2:59 left in the final quarter.
South Carroll closed to within 10 on senior forward Ryan Tate's two free throws with 1:43 left, but the Cavaliers couldn't make a final run. The Lakers put the game away at the foul line, making 14 of their 17 fourth-quarter free-throw attempts.
"It was a good year," said Mullen, a four-year starter who will play college basketball at Navy. "We lost some key guys from last season, but new players stepped in. We jelled and made a nice run. We have to be proud of what we did all season."
South Carroll, which finished with a 21-5 record, won its second consecutive Carroll County and Class 2A West Region titles.
The Lakers, who won previous state championships in 1995, 1999, and 2009, advanced to meet Largo in Saturday's final. The Largo Lions defeated 2011 state finalist Easton, 61-44, in the other Class 2A semifinal.
"We made it to Comcast, which is our ultimate goal," said Tate, who is being recruited by several NCAA Division III schools. "We gave ourselves an opportunity to win the state championship."
South Carroll was trying to reach the title game for the first time since 1989, but the Lakers' methodical offensive strategy restricted the Cavaliers' top offensive threats.
McTavish led all scorers with 16 points and also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, but the rest of the Cavaliers combined for just 18 total points. Tate contributed eight points, while Mullen capped an outstanding high school career with four points and two assists.
Reserve guard Tyler Alcid (six points) gave the Cavaliers a spark off the bench, but South Carroll shot just 32 percent from the field in the second half and totaled just 12 field goals for the entire game.
Boone led the Lakers with 13 points, including a perfect seven-of-seven from the foul line. Henson and junior point guard Daquan Ross added ten points apiece, but the Cavalier defense held Parks, Lake Clifton's top scorer and a major Division I recruit, to just five points on one-of-eight shooting.
"They made their shots in the third quarter, including some off-the-dribble jump shots where we were playing good defense," said Goff, a proponent of a 45-second clock for boys' high school competition. "I was proud of our defense, and thought we guarded well in the half court set. But they're tough to guard, and they got a lot of foul calls."
Despite the Cavaliers' third straight state semifinal loss, Goff is confident that South Carroll will return to the Comcast Center in the near future.
McTavish, already a recruiting target by several NCAA Division I schools, will return for his fourth varsity season. Alcid and junior guard Jack Quinn, the Cavaliers' top reserves, will also be back.
"Our goals for College Park weren't set at the beginning of the season," said the sixth-year head coach. "We had a lot of new guys, and after we lost our opener to Linganore I talked to the team about not setting the expectations too high, too early. We got better every day, and when we ended up losing the final in overtime at the Glen Burnie Christmas Tournament we realized that we could play with other high-level athletes in a pressure-packed environment.
"Now, our guys are realizing that (the state tournament) is a possibility. It takes a lot of hours, but we have younger brothers who have had older brothers play here (at Comcast) and they know that the hard work can pay off and give them this kind of experience."
Lake Clifton 46, South Carroll 34
Lake Clifton 140 12 20 46
South Carroll 1138 12 34
3rd Quarter: Lake Clifton, 26-22
Lake Clifton: James Boone 13, Daquan Ross 10, Cortell Henson 10, Lionel Greene 8, Aaron Parks 5
South Carroll: Gavin McTavish 16, Ryan Tate 8, Tyler Alcid 6, Dan Mullen 4Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun