River Hill boys basketball evaluates its defensive performance using two questions: How are the Hawks defending athletic teams? Are they stopping teams that run efficient offenses?
For much of the year, the Hawks answered those questions by way of having the county’s top scoring defense. But in the final two games of the regular season — losses at Oakland Mills and against Glenelg — coach Matt Graves noticed more defensive breakdowns from his group. It allowed too many uncontested drives to the basket and open three-point attempts.
Graves concluded he needed to change defenses, so he opted for the one he’s built his career on: match-up zone.
He said the match-up zone has been a work in progress since implementing it Feb. 19 — one week before River Hill’s playoff opener against Marriotts Ridge — but it seems to have rejuvenated a team that now sits one win away from a region title.
After holding Marriotts Ridge to 39 points, the Hawks shut down Oakland Mills’ offense in the first half of Wednesday’s 60-56 win in the 2A South, Section I final. In allowing just 16 points over that stretch, they built a big enough cushion by halftime that they could hold off the Scorpions’ comeback bid down the stretch.
River Hill (20-4) will now host Thomas Stone on Friday night with a chance to win its first region title since 2007 and second overall.
“It’s a defense where if you’re confused by it, it doesn’t matter what you run because we’re switching on all ball cuts, we’re switching on all balls screens,” Graves said. “Now, it creates mismatches, but by the time they figured that out, they’re either taking a bad shot or we’re getting a steal. So it definitely gave us momentum in the first half.”
Senior guard Jacob Krause led the Hawks with 18 points and was one of four players on the team to score in double figures. Their balanced scoring attack was enough to edge the Scorpions, who received 23 points from junior guard Daeshawn Eaton.
The easiest buckets of the game for Krause came on back-to-back possessions late in the first half and epitomized River Hill’s reason for running the match-up zone. Already ahead, 23-12, the Hawks forced Oakland Mills into an empty possession and then found a streaking Krause with an outlet pass for an easy layup. The next Scorpions’ trip down the floor unfolded almost the exact same way.
River Hill was back to creating offense with its defense, an area Krause said the team got away from in its two losses to end the regular season.
As for Oakland Mills, coach Jon Browne had seen enough of his team’s stagnant offense. He called a timeout with the hopes of halting the Hawks’ momentum, but the stop in game action could not keep the Scorpions from entering halftime in a 31-16 hole.
“We lost the game in the first half, period,” Browne said. “That’s a great team, and we had an opportunity to show up tonight and give them a game, but we only played for one half.”
The Scorpions (18-6) picked up their energy level after intermission and received a huge scoring boost from Eaton after a quiet first half. The county’s leading scorer (16.9 points per game) totaled 11 of the team’s 15 points in the period as they sliced River Hill’s lead by more than half (38-31) entering the fourth quarter.
But with the Scorpions threatening, the Hawks responded with their own clutch shots. Senior guard Josh Mann (eight points) drilled a 3-pointer to start the frame, putting his team back ahead by double digits. Moments later, he hit two free throws stemming from a technical foul.
River Hill possessed the ball after the technical and capitalized on that, too. Behind another three-point shot, this time courtesy of senior guard Luke Champion (10 points), the Hawks held a 46-33 advantage.
Guard Mister Hairston (15 points), one of seven Oakland Mills seniors, did his best to keep the his team within striking distance throughout the fourth quarter. In the final four minutes alone, he drilled three 3-pointers, the third of which brought the Scorpions within 56-50.
But not even his hot shooting could help the Scorpions salvage their season after a lethargic first half.
“River Hill, they wanted it more, that’s the bottom line,” Browne said. “My hats off to them, they’re a great team, and I hope they can bring it home for Howard County.’
River Hill (20-4) — 60, Oakland Mills (18-6) — 56
RH — Krause 18, Martin 12, Champion 10, Daniels 10, Mann 8, McKenna 2.
OM — Eaton 23, Hairston 15, Burgess 7, Simpson 7, Chance 4.
Half: 31-16, RH
Reach Kyle Stackpole at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @kylefstackpole