Winning 22 of 25 games while earning a return trip to the Comcast Center in College Park for a Class 1A state semifinal date with Brunswick hasn't been a smooth ride for New Town's boys basketball team this season. And it won't get easier.
A semifinal win on Friday could pit the Titans against defending state champion Dunbar for the second year in a row.
Dunbar won last year's meeting going away, 60-36, and the New Town players know if they meet the Poets again they will need a different mindset.
"We definitely have to go in there more confident," said senior Justin Brown, looking ahead to a possible rematch. "Dunbar kind of came in there and took over. We just have to go in there as a team and not be afraid of their name."
Junior point guard Daniel Shand, who had a team-high 13 points in the loss to Dunbar last year, says unity is key.
"We've got to play as a team. If everybody plays as a team, and we get everybody involved, I think we are going to put up a state banner," he said.
They also have to avoid speed bumps like the ones they hit in a 71-58 triumph over Pikesville on March 7 in the Class 1A North Region final.
"This is a heart-attack bunch," veteran New Town coach Mike Daniel said. "They make plays and, so far, they have made plays at the right time. I couldn't be more proud of them."
One of those was a spectacular play late in the third quarter against Pikesville. With less than a minute left in the period, the top-seeded Titans were clinging to a four-point lead when Shand knew it was "Justin time."
Shand fed Brown with an alley-oop that the senior dunked with 34 seconds left.
After Damien Hamler's rebound at the other end, Shand went coast-to-coast for a three-point play that pushed the lead to 50-41 with 11 seconds left in the quarter.
Pikesville (16-9) never got any closer.
"It changed the whole momentum of the game," said Brown, who finished with a game-high 23 points and 11 rebounds. "That's kind of what dunks do. It just got us going and we kept the lead throughout the whole fourth quarter."
"The alley-oop was going to give us momentum and we got it," said Shand, who poured in 21 points, to go along with five assists and three steals."
Daniel liked the timeliness of the acrobatic play, which came after Pikesville's Sae'kno Brown (nine points) converted Eric Deluison's pass to make it 45-41 with 1:29 left in the third period.
"I see it all the time," Daniel said. " When it comes to dunking, nobody is better than Justin. And when it comes to passing, nobody is better than Danny."
It wasn't the only gut-check moment during a playoff run that included a 68-61 victory over Western Tech in a North Region semifinal.
New Town, which walloped Western Tech, 66-42 during the regular season, trailed, 22-19, at halftime after shooting and rebounding poorly.
Daniel gave his troops some simple advice.
"You know what I told the guys at halftime, 'Sometimes you have bad halves; sometimes you have bad games; you've got to keep playing,' and I think we did in the third quarter. Then we went to sleep again in the fourth quarter," he said.
New Town outscored Western Tech, 26-14, in a third-quarter flurry with Shand producing seven of his 19 points and four of his seven assists — both team highs.
"Coach told me great point guards get their team involved, so I got my team involved and it opened up for me," Shand said.
The Titans knocked down four three-pointers in the third quarter, including a pair by Keith Wainwright, who scored eight of his 18 points while Brown scored eight of his 15 points during that span.
Even with the explosive quarter, the outcome wasn't sealed. The Wolverines cut a 60-44 lead to 67-61 on Tre Beverly's shot with 23 seconds left but could get no closer.
Western Tech coach Mike Slepesky praised the Titans' scoring trio.
"They are great and they've got some star power with No. 11 (Brown), No. 1 (Shand) and No. 21 (Wainwright)," Slepesky said. "I was pleased that we played with a very, very high level of intensity."
Daniel thought maybe his squad took the Wolverines lightly.
"My guys didn't realize the stakes in the playoffs are higher and teams are going to play better. They'll never play you the same way they did before, and I thought they did a real good job of stopping us a lot," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun