Man-to-man defense has been a staple for River Hill boys basketball this season, helping it put together an 18-2 start to the year and secure home-court advantage throughout the 2A South region playoffs.
But then the Hawks finished the regular season with back-to-back losses, results in which their defense struggled to contain Oakland Mills and Glenelg. In response, coach Matt Graves opted to teach the team his accredited match-up zone defense before the postseason. The Hawks subsequently shut down Marriotts Ridge and Oakland Mills to advance to Saturday’s region final against Thomas Stone.
But the new defense was not nearly as effective against the Cougars, as River Hill allowed 19 first-quarter points and faced a 32-26 halftime hole. Graves and his players noticed frequent matchup problems their opponent continued to exploit.
So, with the season on the line, senior guard Jaden Martin recommended the Hawks switch back to the defense that carried them to this point.
“Let’s go to man. We’ve been playing it all year,” Martin told his coach. “Let’s ride it out one more game and see what happens.
“And it worked.”
The Hawks blitzed Thomas Stone to start the third quarter with tight on-ball guarding and well-timed help defense that sapped any momentum the Cougars gained in the first half. The period’s first five minutes featured multiple turnovers, a couple of blocked shots and a offensive foul. Almost all of those sequences ended with layups for River Hill in transition. None of them ended in points for the Cougars.
River Hill ended up rattling off 13 straight points during that stretch, turning a deficit into a seven-point lead, and stuck with tight man-to-man defense the rest of the way in a 61-51 regional title victory. It’s the Hawks second in program history, the first since 2007 and a result that sends them to Xfinity Center to play North Caroline in the 2A state semifinals on March 9 at 9 p.m.
“It’s always nice to win your last game at home, first and foremost, with a team that’s worked extremely hard in the playoffs,” Graves said. “Nine seniors, they stepped up when the going got tough.”
“It’s just huge. The feeling of it, it feels great,” said Martin, who exploded for 17 second-half points after a quiet start. “But we’re not finished yet. We want to win a state championship.”
The game got off to a blistering start, with both teams knocking down shots and limiting their turnovers. The senior trio of Jacob Krause (16 points), Dylan Daniels (13) and Luke Champion (six) led the charge for River Hill (21-4), while Cougars senior Kamau Mitchell — who finished with a game-high 24 points — rarely missed a shot during the opening two quarters. He totaled 13 points by halftime to send the Hawks into their home locker room in a rare hole.
Still, River Hill remained composed. Martin knew they did not play up to their potential and were fortunate not to be down more. With man-to-man defense and a slow yet efficient offense, he and Graves were confident they would erase their six-point deficit.
Martin began the defense onslaught in the third quarter by drawing a charge on Thomas Stone’s opening possession. Then the Hawks forced a few turnovers. And when the Cougars did manage to get a shot off, Daniels and fellow big man OJ Okojie would swat it away. They combined for nine blocks in the win.
“I believe they’re the best rim protectors in the state of Maryland,” Graves said. “They might not be as polished offensively, but I’ll tell you — if you go down that lane and one of them is down there, they’re at least going to deflect a ball or put a hand on a ball. And I think it gives those guards confidence to say, ‘Hey, I got beat by a good player, but I have my backbone back there to clean the mess up.’
Meanwhile, the Hawks’ offensive run began with a putback from Okojie and a 3-pointer from Krause, who followed that up with a transition layup and a pass to Martin for a basket on another fast break. Krause then finished another layup, and Martin banked in a jumper, all with more than three minutes left in the period.
By the time Mitchell broke the scoring drought with an and-1 conversion, Thomas Stone (18-7) still trailed by four.
“They’re a good team. They ran their stuff very disciplined,” Cougars coach Dale Lamberth said. “So once you make those kinds of mistakes, and then they went back door a couple times right out of the third quarter. So they did some things well that contributed to that [run] as well.”
Thomas Stone responded to the game-changing run by staying within three points entering the fourth quarter but then allowed River Hill to score the next nine points. The deficit this time was too great to overcome.
The Cougars spent the final few minutes extending the game with fouls in the hope the Hawks would falter on the free throw line. After all, the last time the Hawks were in the 2A South final in 2015, they missed the front end of a couple 1-and-1 opportunities in the final moments. That kept hope alive for Centennial, which eventually pulled out a 49-48 win at the buzzer.
But Saturday night, River Hill ensured Thomas Stone’s season would end on the Hawks’ home floor. Martin, a freshman contributor on that 2015 team, hit seven of his eight foul shots in the final frame.
As a whole, the team shot 14-for-18 from the charity strike during that stretch.
“River Hill wanted this game a little bit more than Thomas Stone,” Lamberth said.
River Hill (20-4) — 61, Thomas Stone (18-7) — 51
RH — Martin 18, Krause 16, Daniels 13, McKenna 9, Champion 6, Mann 2, Okojie 2.
TS — Mitchell 23, Grant 12, Jackson 6, Locke 3, Queen 3, Wilson 3.
Half: 32-26, TS
Centennial falls to Stephen Decatur in 3A East region final
After wins over Atholton and Mt. Hebron, Centennial fell one win short of its second region title the past four years.
The Eagles fell behind, 9-0, to start the game, and while they eventually took the lead late in the third quarter, they could not contain senior guard Kevon Voyles. The Maryland Eastern Shore commit dropped 38 points, carrying Stephen Decatur to a 60-51 win and its third straight region title.
Centennial (16-9) received 16 points from senior guard and leading scorer Sean Taylor, but no other player scored in double figures. Senior Andrew Hohmann (nine points) and junior Ryan Hollwedel (seven points) were the next-highest scorers on the team.
The loss snapped the Eagles’ 10-game winning streak.
Stephen Decatur — 60, Centennial — 51
SD — Voyles 38, Aluma 6, Danaher 5, Shockley 4, Frazier 3, Beja 2, Woodland 2.
C — Taylor 16, Hohmann 9, Hollwedel 7, Ford 5, Hill 4, Eudell 6, Bonner 2, Addisu 1, William 1.
Half: 29-17, SD
Reach Kyle Stackpole at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @kylefstackpole