The Arundel boys basketball team went into Tuesday's game against Anne Arundel County rival Glen Burnie well aware that the difference between winning and losing would likely come down to executing in the final minutes.
The circumstances in getting to the end, however, couldn't have been planned for.
After seeing their 17-point lead late in the third quarter completely erased by the No. 12 Gophers, the Wildcats were able to collect themselves and regroup, finding the necessary last-minute answers to come away with a 55-53 home win.
Sophomore forward Darian Bryant scored with eight seconds left — taking an entry pass from Austin Carroll and then sealing his defender for the easy lay-in — to provide the final margin. The Gophers had one last chance, but senior guard Brandon Spain's three pointer went off the rim and two tip tries also stayed out of the basket.
The Wildcats got a team-high 18 points from senior guard David Nicholson. Bryant scored eight of his 15 in the fourth quarter to help Arundel improve to 7-0 on the season and 4-0 in Anne Arundel. The Gophers, who got a game-high 25 points from Spain, fell to 9-1 overall and 3-1 in league play.
With the Gophers paying close attention to Nicholson in the final minute, Arundel turned to Bryant twice in the last 33 seconds of a tie game. He scored baskets both times.
"Coach just called the plays and we came out and executed them right. We got open, made the right cuts and got the baskets," said Bryant, who broke a 51-51 tie with an inside basket with 33 seconds left before scoring the deciding basket later. "I knew the backdoor was going to be there because I saw them cheating and I got the layup [for the final basket]."
The Wildcats broke open a close game when the went on an 11-0 run at the end of the second quarter to take a 29-19 halftime advantage — getting consecutive 3-point plays from Martin Campbell and Julian Sellers before Nicholson buried a 3-pointer and then made two free throws.
The lead continued to grow in the third quarter — a mix of defenses keeping the Gophers out of sync — while the Wildcats continued to execute inside and outside offensively.
When Nicholson hit another three pointer with 2:01 to play in the third quarter, the home team enjoyed a 43-26 lead that appeared insurmountable.
But the Gophers didn't go away, finding their rhythm behind Spain, who fueled the comeback with 13 of his 25 points coming in the final 10 minutes. After he hit a pair of free throws, a three pointer and a follow basket to help cut the Wildcats' lead to 47-43 with 4:01 to play, Clarence Watkins scored the next four points to get the Gophers' even, at 47, for the first time in the second half.
The Wildcats would never allow the Gophers to get a lead — the game tied three more times before Bryant's closing basket with eight seconds left.
"I thought the were really over-pressuring David [Nicholson] — they were really keying in on him — so I just tried to find a better matchup," said Arundel coach Jeff Starr, who set up the pivotal play for Bryant underneath after calling timeout with 18 seconds left. "I thought Austin did a good job of controlling the ball and getting it to Darian and the execution was perfect. I had gone to him before in big games and he's come through, so I feel confident that he can come through with the big play and produce."
Glen Burnie coach Mike Rudd was disappointed with the way his Gophers played in falling behind early, but proud of how they fought back to give Spain a chance to win it in the end.
"Arundel is too good a team to spot the big lead to, but I knew we were going to make a run … My kids aren't going to quit and we were right there," he said. "That's a play we worked on at practice [Monday] and Brandon had the option of pulling up and shooting that or hitting William [Brown] on the roll. I'll take him shooting that shot every time — he's a senior, he deserves to be in that spot and if he knocks that down we're all happy now."