The Howard Community College men’s basketball team had already beaten the College of Southern Maryland once this season. But Sunday's rematch meant so much more than that early season contest in November when the Dragons edged the Hawks, 102-95.
This time – in the Region XX B group tournament finals – a trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Championship Tournament was on the line.
“That first game had absolutely nothing to do with this one,” HCC coach Mike Smelkinson said. “That was the first conference game of the year for us and both teams are completely different at this point in the season. We didn’t even look at the game film.”
Behind a game-high 24 points from Alie Kondeh, HCC knocked off Southern Maryland, 88-83, in overtime to win the Division II B championship at Hagerstown Community College Sunday. The team earned a spot in the national tournament for the first time since 1993.
“The guys were thrilled and rightfully so,” Smelkinson said. “I talked to them about being willing to come to Howard and start something here. In three or four years, when they've move on to their other schools, hopefully we’ll be winning championships and they can come back to a game and say ‘I helped start things by winning that championship in 2013.’ ”
Guard Brandon Spain came off the bench to score 19 points and grab eight boards for the Dragons (16-12). Jazmon Harris and Kayode Ajenifuja each finished in double figures with 13 and 11, respectively.
“I was so excited and proud of my teammates for all the hard work we've put in,” Ajenifuja said. “Even though I was in foul trouble, they were able to keep fighting and we wanted the win deep down and we got it. We have accomplished our goal for the year and that’s all that matters.”
After the Hawks tied the score at 70-70 late in regulation, Spain had a shot at the go-ahead bucket with 24 seconds left but couldn’t convert a 3-point attempt.
In overtime, HCC jumped on top and stayed there. Kondeh had eight points in the extra five-minute session and his jumper with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left opened up an 80-73 advantage. Southern Maryland would never get closer than four points the rest of the way.
In the closing seconds, with the team still holding onto a four-point lead, Kondeh got a tip-in on an offensive board and James Bartnik (Howard High) drained two foul shots to seal the title.
HCC advanced to the championship game after beating Northern Virginia Community College, 83-71, in the semifinals less than 24 hours before.
Ajenifuja led the way with a game-high 24 points and 15 rebounds in that contest. Spain again was a catalyst off the bench, scoring 18 points in 24 minutes of action. Harris and Maurice Thompson added 10 apiece.
“It was a terrific team effort to get the win, which was encouraged through having the self-efficacy to believe in furthering our season,” Thompson said.
Spain was named the tournament’s MVP, averaging 18.5 points per game, and Ajenifuja earned all-tournament team honors.
“This weekend was Brandon’s time to shine,” Smelkinson said. “He is super athletic and talented but as a true freshman straight out of high school it took some time to get used to the speed of the college game.
“He was shocked when they called his name for MVP. He’s such a team player that he wasn’t thinking about himself, he just wanted to do whatever it took to help the team win.”
The Dragons will return to the court for the NJCAA Division III Nationals tournament in Danville, Illinois Mar. 19-23.
“We went down by a good margin, but we all realized what was at stake,” sophomore James Peters (Oakland Mills) said. “We came out in overtime, took care of the job and now we are heading to Illinois. I think winning regionals brought us even closer as a team because we haven't been this happy together before. And going so far away to play a game, all we will have is us.”
Just a few weeks ago, however, a regional title seemed to be out of reach. The Dragons lost four of their last five regular season games. But the team regrouped in preparation for a title run.
“When we were in the middle of that four-game losing streak, I heard the guys talking about representing Howard the right way,” Smelkinson said. “They were playing for the love of the school and the name on their chests. The kids played their hearts out for the school yesterday.”