In early January, on the heels of a 76-73 loss to Atholton that dropped Reservoir’s record to 6-5 on the season, coach Mike Coughlan sat his guys down and encouraged them to do a little soul searching.
There was still half a season left. But, for a Gators program coming off making the 3A state semifinals last year, getting back to that elite level was going to take a little something extra.
“After that Atholton game coach basically told us we have (four) weeks before our season could be over and it kind of just hit me right there,” said Aaron McDonald, who is one of a core group of Reservoir seniors. “This could very well be the last time doing this for me and I didn’t want to go out like that. It was time to make a run.”
Sure enough, over the past month, Reservoir has not only regrouped but has closed the regular season by tying the longest winning streak in program history.
With its 82-80 victory over Oakland Mills on Monday, during which McDonald scored a career-high 28 points, the Gators secured a season-sweep of the Scorpions and won their 10th straight game entering the playoffs.
“We did the same thing last year, we peaked at the same time,” Reservoir coach Mike Coughlan said. “Obviously, going into this it’s going to be a little different … in terms of who we may have to face. If we’re going to get to that point, though, we have to make sure everything is on point. We’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
For Reservoir (16-3 county, 16-5 overall) to extend its county-best winning streak, it took passing arguably its biggest test of the season on the road against first-place Oakland Mills (15-2, 17-3).
Having McDonald get going early certainly helped. The senior guard, whose previous career-high was 23 points, exploded for 17 points in the first half against the Scorpions. He scored 10 of those points in the first quarter, helping stake Reservoir to a 20-16 lead through the first eight minutes.
“If I hit two or three in a row, I’m going to keep going with it and I feel like my teammates start looking for me too,” McDonald said.
Reservoir upped its lead to as many as 13 points in the second quarter, with Joe Kearney (career-high 17 points) and Brian Parker (8 points) getting into the act offensively.
Deshawn Willis (24 points), Mamadou Ndiaye (22) and Daniel Kiely (16) helped Oakland Mills hang around, but the Gators’s still were up by nine, 41-32, at intermission.
“Our inability to stop them on the perimeter, certainly in the first half, hurt us. They got a lot of penetration and we were lethargic defensively,” Oakland Mills coach Jon Browne said. “They outworked us in the first half and we clearly weren’t ready to play with the intensity that they brought. My hats off to (Reservoir).”
Oakland Mills spent the entire third quarter trying to cut into the deficit and made progress, getting as close as three points late in the period.
Then, after Reservoir extended things out to almost double digits again, Oakland Mills made its surge all the way back. A put-back basket by Willis with 2:34 left in regulation tied the game at 74. It was the first tie since the opening minutes of the game.
Yet for all the work Oakland Mills did to get back into it, the team’s inefficiency on the glass ultimately caught up to them. Kearney alone grabbed five offensive rebounds on the game and he converted two of those into put-back baskets in the final minutes of the game.
The point guard, whose previous career-high was 11 points, had the final field goal of the game by Reservoir with a minute left to make it a three-point game, 80-77.
“I’ve got good size for the point guard position and I can jump relatively high, so knowing how crucial every opportunity tonight was I really made an effort to help out on the boards,” Kearney said. “People weren’t boxing out, so I just took upon myself to crash and go in and lay it in.”
Reservoir ended up almost doubling Oakland Mills’ rebounds on the night.
“A lot of hunger to go get the ball tonight, especially at the guard position,” Coughlan said.
After traded foul shots, Oakland Mills got one final chance to win the game in the final seconds. Marvin Williams, whose 12 points on the game were his highest total since December, got a three-point look at the buzzer.
His shot, however, went in and out, giving Reservoir the two-point victory.
“I wish that shot had gone for him … that was one of the best games I’ve seen him play,” Browne said. “He did just a fantastic job all night, offensively, defensively and he was guarding (Kyle) Reilly. He really played his heart out and if anyone was going to hit that shot it was Marvin.
“We just ultimately didn’t make enough plays down the stretch.”
Despite the loss, Oakland Mills still controls its own destiny in the sense that if the team wins its last two games — against Marriotts Ridge and Centennial — it will at least garner a share of this year’s county title.
Reservoir, meanwhile, can shift its entire focus to the postseason and making a playoff run similar to a season ago.
Last year, Reservoir won its final seven regular season games and then carried that momentum into the playoffs en route to the program’s first trip to the state semifinals.
“It feels the exact same to me, honestly,” McDonald said. “It just feels like we are bound to go back. Everyone’s ready.”
Reservoir, 82, Oakland Mills 80
Re (16-3, 16-5): McDonald 28, Kearney 17, Parker 8, Reilly 7, Reynolds 7, Hedgren 6, Henry 4, O’Hagan 3, Mayers 2.
OM (15-2, 17-3): Willis 24, Ndiaye 22, Kiely 16, Williams 12, Bradley 6.
Half: 41-32 Re.