If the Chesapeake (upper) Division boys basketball champs from Joppatowne thought they were going to skate to a victory at Wednesday's UCBAC Championship game, they didn't consult the Susquehanna (lower) Division representatives from Bel Air, who pulled to within two in the game's final 30 seconds before the Mariners cemented a 61-55 victory.
With the victory, the Mariners pulled off the seldom-seen UCBAC feat of taking the Chesapeake and conference titles during their first season following promotion from the Susquehanna Division. Joppatowne, last year's lower-division champ, was topped in the 2013 conference final by Edgewood.
Wednesday's game provided a bigger challenge than the Mariners were expecting.
"We'd seen Bel Air play a couple of times this season," Joppatowne head coach Jermaine Head said after his team had been handed its conference title plaques. "We were able to scout them, and we knew they played hard. They gave C. Milton Wright a challenge, just gave that team fits, and they played a really good game against Fallston, too. But, I don't think our guys were ready for this kind of game tonight. We had a tough time finding our rhythm, and a tough time getting our sets to play out."
After starting the second half tied with the Bobcats, 24-24, and pulling ahead slightly, 43-40, by the end of the third quarter, Joppatowne looked to have worked things out at the beginning of the fourth quarter, with Sir Nicolas Phillips quickly sinking two buckets, while Rashaad Gore followed with another field goal that put Joppatowne up, 49-43.
Bel Air, trailing, 53-46, with just over three minutes left in the game after back-to-back layups from Joppatowne's Jermaine Head Jr., clawed its way back to within two, as Jahari Carmichael knocked down a three-pointer, and Chris Murdock followed with a pair of three-throws that made the score, 53-51.
After Joppatowne went back ahead, 57-53, with 30 seconds left, Bel Air's Craig Simmons took a foul and calmly knocked down two from the charity stripe to put the Bobcats back to within two.
That was as close as Bel Air would get, however, as Joppatowne's Gary Blackston and Phillips combined to go 4-for-4 on free throws down the stretch, giving the Mariners a six-point edge they would take through the final buzzer.
"I told them at halftime that we need to stop playing selfishly, to relax a little bit and have some confidence in our sets," Head said. "When we're playing well, everyone is gelling, and we're running the plays right, we're one of the best teams I've seen. But, when we get off of our game, it can get pretty bad."
The Mariners went into Wednesday's matchup having won the Chesapeake Division crown in dramatic fashion, beating Aberdeen, 68-46, on Saturday to take possession of first place, then clinching the title on Monday with a 65-58 win over Patterson Mill.
"We came tonight with a whole lot of energy because of those last two games," Head said. "Sometimes that can help, but it can hurt you, too. I just want the guys to be confident moving ahead into the playoffs. We're not the favorites in our region, but that's what we've been dealing with all year. We played in a division that has some Division I prospects, and were able to win."
Wednesday's contest started with a pedestrian first quarter, which saw the Mariners move out to a 12-8 lead. Bel Air, trailing, 24-19, in the waning seconds of the second quarter, got a three-pointer from J.D. Bruck, one of four he hit, and two foul shots from Simmons to tie the game at 24 apiece heading into the intermission.
Jermaine Head Jr., Blackston and Phillips each scored 16.
Bel Air's John Gallina scored a team-best 16 points, and led his team in rebounds with 13. Bruck finished with 15 points, while Simmons netted 11.
Patterson Mill beats Bo Manor
Playing a non-division boys UCBAC boys basketball contest at home Tuesday evening, the Patterson Mill Huskies cruised to a 63-35 victory over the Bo Manor Eagles.
The Huskies, with a 6-6 record in Chesapeake (upper) Division play, improved to 12-8 overall for the season.
Patterson Mill led, 49-16, at halftime.
Ben Adams scored 11 to lead the Huskies while teammates Bryce Butler and Rahmon Felder each had 10 points. Malik Bonds and C.J. Keyser each had eight points and Dajuan Madden netted seven.