Its lead shrinking in a hostile road environment against Atholton, Oakland Mills went back to what it does best Monday evening.
By increasing its defensive pressure, along with working for a mix of midrange jumpers and layups, the Scorpions regrouped to finish as would be expected for the defending Howard County champions.
What ended up being a 10-1 run midway through the fourth quarter helped Oakland Mills break open a four-point game and create the separation needed to earn a 78-71 victory. The win keeps the Scorpions (9-0, 11-1) undefeated in county play and gives them a two-game lead in the loss column on second-place Atholton (9-2, 10-3) and River Hill (9-2, 9-4).
"It's a testament to their spirit and their toughness, because no matter what the situation is these kids never give up and always find a way," said Oakland Mills coach Jon Browne, whose team has now won 28 consecutive league games dating back to last season. "Most of these guys have been there and know what it takes. They took the run, they took the punches, and they regroup to come out on top."
Oakland Mills ended up getting standout efforts from Deshawn Willis (22 points) and Mamadou Ndiaye (21 points and 12 rebounds) on an evening where five Scorpions scored eight or more points.
Michael Bernetti paced Atholton in the loss with 20 points.
In the early stages, Oakland Mills wasted little time gaining the upper hand. It was 14-7 in favor of the Scorpions through the first five minutes and Ndiaye already had thrown down a pair of dunks.
Things snowballed from there, as Willis contributed nine points in the period and Oakland Mills was up 26-12 after the first eight minutes.
"It was a crazy first quarter, literally everything was working for us," Browne said.
Oakland Mills kept pushing to open the second quarter and on two different occasions pushed its lead out to 19 points.
Atholton did find life at the end of the half, but still trailed by 12, 39-27, at the break. For an Oakland Mills team that had scored 36 points in its previous two first halves combined, it was an inspired effort.
"In all the games lately we have been coming out and playing slow, so it was time to finally come out and play up tempo," Willis said. "We knew they couldn't run with us if we came out and pushed it."
Things didn't immediately get any better for the Raiders in the second half, as the Scorpions' lead was at 17, 53-36, with 2:33 left in the third quarter. That, however, is when Atholton made its big surge.
Between the end of the third quarter and the first two minutes of the fourth, Atholton went on a 17-4 run to get all the way back within four points of the lead. Bernetti, Joelle Martin (14 points), Brandon Willis (9) and Casey Kelly (8) all contributed big baskets during the comeback by a Raiders team that came into the game riding a nine-game county win streak of its own.
"I think we played like the basketball team we are capable of being for a four- or five-minute stretch there in the second half," Atholton coach Jared Albert said. "Disappointing to give up 39 in the first half, especially when our goal for the game was to hold them under 50. But I've got to credit our kids for battling back."
Before Atholton could come all the way back, though, Oakland Mills dug its heels in and issued a response that essentially put the game away. After a run that pushed the Scorpions' lead back up to 13 points with three minutes left, the Raiders never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
The win for Oakland Mills, which was aided by 13 points from Daniel Kiely and nine from Daivon Tapscott, puts the team in the driver's seat for its second consecutive county championship. But while capturing that potential hardware and continuing its historical winning streak are priorities, it pales in comparison to Oakland Mills' ultimate goal.
"Honestly it feels good to be here winning these games, but to me it's not good enough until we make it to Comcast and bring home that big (state) championship," Willis said. "The county winning streak is just a small part of it and I think most of us feel that way."
Oakland Mills 78, Atholton 71
OM (9-0, 11-1): Willis 22, Ndiaye 21, Kiely 13, Tapscott 9, Bradley 8, Williams 3, Aaron 2.