His team trailing by 13 points and leading scorer Charlie Thomas saddled with two fouls early in the second quarter against Oakland Mills on Thursday, River Hill coach Matt Graves decided it was time to turn back the clocks.
Implementing a spread offense designed to hide the Hawks’ size disadvantage, Graves conjured up some of the same magic that his 2007 squad used on the way to winning the program’s first and only state championship. Riding the hot hand of senior Gary Sandler, who finished with a career-high 22 points, River Hill managed to climb all the way back into a one possession game in the final minutes.
Then, with the game on the line with less than a minute left, Thomas got back on the floor and delivered what turned out to be the game-winning basket on the way to a 52-51 victory over the first-place Scorpions.
“We went back to the old drawing board and brought out an offense that we ran seven or eight years ago. With Charlie sitting on the bench, we needed to spread the court out and force them to make some decisions defensively,” said River Hill coach Matt Graves, whose team has now won 12 of its last 13 games. “Gary Sandler stepped up and decided it was his time to be a leader. He was huge and we slowed down the pace of play just enough to get ourselves in a spot where we had a chance to win the game.”
The victory for River Hill (10-5, 13-5) avenged a 70-52 loss to Oakland Mills (13-2, 15-3) earlier this season and it came despite Thomas, who averages over 23 points a game, sitting most of the second half and being held to just 11 points overall.
In his absence, the combination of Ben Borucki and Richard Mentle combined to provide just enough toughness inside to hold the Scorpions’ interior trio of Will Robinson Jr (12 points), Mamadou Ndiaye (9) and Larry Aaron (2) all below their season averages.
“I got in foul trouble early, but I knew our bigs Borucki and Richard Mentle would step it up and get aggressive with Mamadou and Will,” said Thomas. “They controlled the paint and were getting the rebounds.”
On the other side, Oakland Mills coach Jon Browne said his guys were lacking energy down the stretch and didn’t do themselves any favors by struggling from the foul line.
“We became very stagnant offensively, we were unsure of what we wanted to do and we missed three front-ends of one-and-ones when it mattered most,” Browne said. “Throw in an inability to stop them defensively with Charlie on the bench and we deserved to lose that game. Give a lot of credit to River Hill’s other guys for stepping up and making big plays.
“Frankly, it’s somewhat amazing we almost had a chance to still win there at the end.”
Oakland Mills, trailing by one, had one final chance to win at the end of regulation. Tre Hopkins desperation three from just over half court, however, caromed off the rim and the River Hill bench came spilling onto the floor to celebrate.
In the early stages, as Oakland Mills had built its lead, a combination of pressure defense and balanced scoring was working in the Scorpions’ favor. A jumper by Daniel Kiely (12 points) as time expired in the first quarter had Oakland Mills up 16-9.
Then, following a 3-pointer by Naquan Williams-Day (10 points) just over two minutes into the second quarter staked Oakland Mills to its largest lead of the night, 24-11.
But, just as things were slipping away from River Hill, the team caught fire from beyond the arc. Sandler knocked in a pair of threes and then Mike Heitzmann added one of his own to help keep things manageable at the break.
Following a last-second lay-up by Hopkins, the Scorpions lead was 32-24 at the intermission.
“We got it to 13 points there and I thought we were on our way, but they continued to battle and nip and tuck their way to keep it a game,” Browne said. “We just couldn't get over that hump to put them away and they showed great resiliency without their big man on the floor.”
Thomas got his third foul in the first two minutes of the second half and then, after sitting for a short period of time, picked up his fourth foul at the end of the third quarter.
That just meant it was Sandler’s chance to shine. The senior guard delivered big shots from all over, scoring seven-straight River Hill points during one stretch in the third quarter and then making a running bank-shot early in the fourth that tied the game at 42-42.
“I don’t know if I felt pressure to step up and carry (the team), maybe I had to score a little bit more, but everyone on the team stepped up,” Sandler said.
The fourth quarter ended up with neither team leading by more than four points and a total of five lead changes. Oakland Mills had grabbed a 51-50 lead on a lay-up by Kiely with 2:10 remaining.
But with just under a minute remaining, Graves inserted Thomas back into the line-up and called a play for his big man down low. Catching the ball with his back to the basket, Thomas turned and knocked down a turn-around jumper that put his team back on top for good.
“Being a senior and being a leader, it was time to make a play and I’m glad we were able to get the ball in his hands,” Graves said. “He got a chance to show what he was made of and he made the shot when it counted.”
Graves added afterward that this was an especially big win for his guys that hadn’t beaten Oakland Mills since the 2011-12 season.
“For the kids this is a huge motivator moving on and it’s even bigger in terms of helping us hopefully get a good seed for the playoffs,” he said. “But, yeah, I think there was a little extra motivation going against those guys because they really have had our number. That’s a very good and very athletic team, and it’s a credit to our kids for staying the course and trusting that our system could help us win the game.”
River Hill 52, Oakland Mills 51
RH (10-5, 13-5): Sandler 22, Thomas 11, Gabel 7, Heitzmann 5, Borucki 4, Clark 3.
OM (13-2, 15-3): Robinson Jr. 12, Kiely 12, Williams-Day 10, Ndiaye 9, Hopkins 4, Stanfield 2, Aaron 2.
Half: 32-24 OM.
Centennial 57, Howard 42
C (14-1, 15-2): Strothers 13, Clemens 10, E. White 9, I. White 9, Geist 6, Wilson 4, An 3, Brown 3.
Ho (6-9, 8-10): Shuart 16, O’Malley 11, Savage 6, Dawkins 3, Noble 3, Greene 2, Robinson 1.
Half: 26-14 C.
Reservoir 79, Glenelg 51
Gators coach Mike Coughlan said his guys “couldn’t have played a better half of defense,” to open the game against the Gladiators, as Reservoir jumped ahead 39-14 by halftime. By the end of the game 10 different Gators’ players scored, led by 25 points from Seth Henry and 21 from Jon Mierzwa.
Nick Oates led Glenelg in the loss with 20 points.
Re (11-4, 12-6): Henry 25, Mierzwa 21, Phillips 11, Obering 10, G. Garcia 3, Weith 2, Gaines 2, J. Garcia 2, Benson 2, Maloney 1.
G (5-10, 7-11): Oates 20, Napolitano 11, Hammert 11, Monroe 3, Richardson 2, Conners 2, Mills 2.
Half: 39-14 Re.
Mt. Hebron 51, Marriotts Ridge 36
MH (9-6, 12-6): M. Smith 23, A. Smith 19, Maloney 2, Linsenmeyer 2, Madden 2, Schroeder 1.
MR (3-12, 4-14): Caffes 13, Clipp 11, Speelman 6, Curtain 6.
Half: 17-11 MH.
Long Reach 73, Hammond 61
Behind a team effort that saw eight guys score six or more points, the Lightning got back on the winning track following their overtime loss to Centennial on Tuesday. The team finished with 16 assists overall.
LR (7-8, 8-10): Statamatides 11, Brodnax 11, Avery 10, Clark 8, Paul 7, Carter 7, Duckett 7, Lamar 6, Parham 4, Menusan 2.
Ha (2-13, 3-15): Wilcher 16, Johnson 14, Whong 9, White 9, Ridgell 8, Wheatley 3, Nicholas 2.
Half: 42-29 LR.
Mount Carmel 78, Glenelg Country 60
MC: Nolan 17, Jefferson 14, Jenkins 13, Webb 9, Mathis 8, Erebar 8, Bryant 4, Meeks 3, Williams 2.
GC (4-12, 11-14): Longpre 20, Hightower 13, Williams 12, Walsh 7, Tverijonas 6, Bernetti 2.
Half: 36-25 MC.
Friends 75, Chapelgate 70 (Wednesday)
F: Williams 32, Jones 15, Douglass 14, Gnones 14.
CCA (5-7, 12-13): Frierson 28, Grandy 14, Mitchell 13, Madden 9, Ball 6.
Half: 41-28 CCA.