Breathing a collective sigh of relief before celebrating, Maryland's most prolific boys basketball team — Dunbar — added to the program's legacy in Saturday's Class 1A state championship game at the University of Maryland's Comcast Center.
With a hard-fought 54-52 win over No. 9 New Town in a rematch of last year's title game, the No. 1 Dunbar captured its state record 15th Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association championship. Combined with their 20 Maryland Scholastic Association championships prior to joining the MPSSAA in the 1992-93 school year, the Poets now have 35 championships.
Junior guard Kamau Stokes scored seven of his 13 points in the final 3:30 of the fourth quarter; junior guard Keandre Gibson hit two clutch free throws in the final minute and the defense provided a last-possession stop to seal the victory. It's the fourth straight Class 1A state championship for the Poets (26-2), who captured a second straight Baltimore City Division I championship last month.
"Each year, we try to tell the guys that come in what that Poet Pride is like, what the legacy is like, what the history of the school is and a lot of them don't always get it within a short timeframe," Dunbar coach Cyrus Jones said. "Sometimes it has to roll on them, but eventually they'll actually understand what that Poet Pride means.
"Today, we're sitting here as champions and their names will now go in the history books. So when they get older, they'll be able to come back to the school and see their names hanging amongst the rafters on one of the banners, which is something to be proud of."
Unlike last year's final, when Dunbar dominated in a 60-36 rout, the Titans (22-4) gave the Poets everything they could handle with a strong defensive effort throughout the game and some timely baskets to stay close.
Following his team's 52-44 semifinal win over Brunswick on Friday, New Town first-year coach Mike Daniel, who won two state titles at City in 2009 and 2010, said his team would have to play its usual strong defense and also make free throws. On Saturday, the Titans only made 13 of their 35 free throws.
At the postgame news conference, the team's struggle at the foul line took center stage.
"We're usually pretty good with the foul shot," Daniel said, who guessed his team was hitting between 50 and 60 percent from the foul line throughout the season. "But they kind of eluded us today and I thought — bottom line — that was the difference in the ball game. It was tough. But you live and learn and you move on and that's what we're prepared to do."
Despite the poor performance at the free-throw line, the Titans were still in position for the upset.
After New Town forward Justin Brown (18 points, nine rebounds) converted a three-point play to give the Titans a 50-48 lead with 2:39 to play — their first since the opening basket — the Poets found the same resolve they've had all season long. Stokes answered right back with a tying basket with 2:23 to play.
After the Poets stopped New Town, Stokes attacked the basket to regain the lead at 52-50.
With the Poets leading 54-52 and the Titans with the ball on the last possession, Keith Wainwright's reverse layup rimmed out and then Brown eventually got the loose ball underneath, but time expired before he could put up a follow shot.
Much like their 74-73 win over Edmondson in the Baltimore City title game, the Poets had the right answers at the end.
"We just had to battle this one out," said Gibson, who hit two key free throws with 54 seconds left to give the Poets a 54-50 lead. "All through the year, we've had battles — Edmondson and Lake Clifton — some tough battles. So this wasn't new to us. We just had to dig down deep, get one stop to win the game and that's what we did."
Daxter Miles led Dunbar with 15 points and added 11 rebounds, while Gibson finished with 13.
1 Dunbar 54, 9 New Town 52
NT – Brown 18, Shand 12, Wainwright 6, Magginson 6, Sherrod 4, Mack 2, Dorsey 4. Totals: 19 13-35 52.
D – Miles 15, Gibson 13, Stokes 13, Brown 5, McNair 3, Buchanan 2, Hampton 1, Wright 2. Totals: 13 21-30 54.
Half: D, 28-22.