There were two moments that defined Wednesday night's win by the Howard Community College Dragons over the visiting CCBC-Dundalk Lions.
The first was highlight-reel worthy -- a thunderous jam by Howard's Kayode Ajenifuja that followed an alley-oop from Julian Davis to Connor Gaskins. Both baskets set the tone during a scoring tear for the home team with roughly 11 minutes left.
The second came with just two minutes remaining. Ajenifuja was just short on a 3-point attempt but instead of just watching the shot, he followed the ball to the basket for a put-back layup.
Though one play was flashy and the other more fundamental, they both helped the Dragons (13-4, 7-2) defeat the Lions (13-3, 5-2), 80-72, and tighten the race for a conference title.
"I think this was a big step in the right direction," HCC coach Mike Smelkinson said. "It was an all-around good team win, and it was unselfish basketball…Now we're going to have a target on our back."
Ajenifuja tallied 16 points and nine rebounds for HCC, which trailed 34-28 heading into halftime. Centennial High School graduate Omari Ringgold had a game-high 17 points for the Dragons, while Jaz Harris (11 points) and Jeff James (10) also played crucial roles in the comeback victory.
"(Coach said) pick up the energy," said Ajenifuja, a sophomore talent from Beltsville, who added that he was happy to stay on the court all night despite foul trouble in the last few games.
Early in the first half, the Dragons struggled to pick up momentum on both sides of the ball. Shooting just 37 percent from the field, the home team couldn't convert against an aggressive Lions defense that forced 19 turnovers in the game.
"Dundalk came in here and set the tone, and we turned the ball over left and right in the first half," said Smelkinson. "We knew coming in that taking care of the ball was going to be one of the key points, as well as attacking the rim. Obviously you can't do that when you're turning it over before you get to half court."
The teams traded points for the majority of the first 11 minutes, with neither side gaining too much ground. But, with 9:50 remaining before the break, Dundalk went on an 8-0 scoring run that spanned nearly four minutes. Then, for the last three minutes of the half, the visitors' defense held the Dragons to just three points.
HCC's James, a sophomore, said his team felt disrespected heading into Wednesday's contest. After going to nationals last year, the forward said his teammates weren't getting the recognition they thought they deserved. In the second half, the Dragons made sure to leave their mark, and from the start of the second 20 minute-period, HCC was in full control.
In a three-minute span that started with 16:33 to go, the Dragons went on a 13-2 run. Lions coach Jaron Taylor attempted to halt the momentum on multiple occasions with timeouts, but the barrage of points kept coming.
Up by 10 points, HCC produced the alley-oop followed by the solo dunk, bringing the crowd to its feet.
"The energy was like a domino effect," said James after the game. "Once we got excited, it felt like there was no stopping us. The adrenaline was kicking, and we knew we finally got over the hill."
Though the lead would dwindle to as little as six points before the Dragons regrouped, any late-game push was thwarted by an improved defensive stand.
Denzel Dulin led Dundalk with 15 points, while Malachy Onwudiegwu (14 points), Jordan Myers (11) and James Brogden (11) also played well in the losing effort.
For the moment, Howard is tied for the best MD JUCO record with Southern Maryland.
Coach Smelkinson insisted that the win was important, but there is more to be done. Playing a complete game is still something his squad needs to improve upon as the season progresses.
"We realize that we're an explosive team and we can be very scary scoring the ball, but we want to be able to play 40 minutes, and that's what it's going to take to win the championship," he said. "We just have to keep getting better every day."