Aaron McDonald

Reservoir senior Aaron McDonald scored a career-high 23 points on Friday night, helping the Gators to a 57-52 victory over River Hill. (File photo by Matt Hazlett / February 1, 2014)

In what he called a “must-win game” Friday night, Reservoir’s Aaron McDonald put together arguably the best performance of his career.

Highlighted by a huge second quarter, where McDonald scored 16 of his career-high 23 points, Reservoir built a lead it never lost the rest of the way en route to a 57-52 victory over visiting River Hill.

In a battle for playoff seeding in the 3A East region, Reservoir (11-3, 11-5) now holds a one-game lead in the loss column over River Hill (11-4, 12-6).

“We’re playing for a home game in the playoffs and we knew coming in that to have a shot at that we had to win this one,” said McDonald, whose previous career high was 20 points. “I know for me personally, having lost to them two times in a row, I didn’t want it to be three times … definitely some extra motivation tonight.”

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River Hill, which was led by Charlie Thomas (17 points and 13 rebounds) and Gary Sandler (16 points), made several runs in the second half to close within one possession of the lead. Reservoir, however, found an answer for every Hawks’ push to maintain its cushion until the final buzzer sounded.

In the closing 75 seconds of the game, McDonald, Seth Henry and Joe Kearney all scored big points to keep River Hill at arm’s length.

“We’re the kind of team that needs to keep attacking … once we start easing up, trying to protect a lead, that’s when we get ourselves into trouble,” Reservoir coach Mike Coughlan said. “We missed some shots, but by staying aggressive and attacking the basket I think that’s what allowed us to keep the lead.”

Ironically enough, out of the gates, River Hill was the one with the lead.

The Hawks put together a 10-0 run to close the first quarter and found themselves with a 14-7 advantage. Over the final 4:44 of the period, Reservoir didn’t score a single point.

Once the second quarter began, though, everything changed. McDonald stole a pass and threw down a huge dunk on the opening possession of the frame and never slowed down.

Making an array of 3-point shots, lay-ups and foul shots, he nearly single-handedly helped Reservoir outscore River Hill 22-8 in the quarter and take a 29-22 lead into halftime.

“As the game went on I started to feel it and I just tried to keep it going,” McDonald said. “That was probably the best stretch in a game ever for me.”

Kyle Reilly (10 points) heated up a little from beyond the arc in the third quarter to help Reservoir extend its lead to double digits for the first time. Getting threes from Brandon Parker and Kevin Mayers in the period also helped.

Heading into the final eight minutes, Reservoir held a 45-34 advantage.

River Hill didn’t just roll over, however, and began chipping away at the Gators’ lead almost immediately in the fourth quarter. Thomas and Sandler got the comeback started and then, a couple minutes later, a 3-pointer by Mike Heitzmann (9 points) made it a three-point game.

Over those final two minutes of regulation, the Hawks found themselves trailing by three points on three different occasions. The problem was, with Reservoir’s clutch baskets and foul shooting, River Hill never got any closer than that.

The win is Reservoir’s fifth straight and has the team building momentum toward the playoffs very similar to last season when the program won its last seven regular season games en route to eventually making it to the state semifinals.

“I’d rather be good at the end than good at the beginning and I think everybody put high expectations on these kids before the season and forgot we lost eight seniors (from last year),” Coughlan said. “We had just three kids coming back that played significant minutes, so there were going to be some lessons to be learned. But we’re putting it together now at the right time.

“We’re 9-1 (in county play) now since the last time we played (River Hill) … and in some ways it’s the same type of run we made last year heading into playoffs.”

Reservoir 57, River Hill 52