Before this season, when looking back on his team having lost in the region championship game four of the last five years, Oakland Mills coach Jon Browne joked that the monkey on his back had been replaced by a wooly mammoth.
Then a month later at Christmas, playing along with the analogy, Browne's father gave him a toy wooly mammoth to keep as a reminder of what he and his team were trying to get rid of.
So on Monday night, just moments after his team's breakthrough 73-70 overtime victory over Douglass-PG in the 2A South regional championship, Browne fought back tears of joy as he grabbed the stuffed animal from out of his bag and flung it toward the rafters.
"It's been on my mind for months, so I had to bring it with me today. It has a lot of significance, all those teams that got here and didn't win, so to finally do it and be able to officially get rid of that thing was an emotional moment for me," Browne said. "That was a crazy game that would have tweaked my emotions anyway, but when you throw in all the extra stuff, it's a lot to take in."
The regional championship was not only the first for Browne in his 10 years with the program since taking over the varsity in 2005-06, but also the first for the Oakland Mills program since 2001.
For the members of last year's team, which got beat by Potomac in the region final by 38 points, redemption was especially sweet.
"I mean last year hurt real bad getting blown out by Potomac … but we vowed to come back this season, get to this point and win it," said Scorpions' senior Mamadou Ndiaye, who scored a team-high 19 points to go along with 11 rebounds. "So much adversity has been put in our way, but we battled through it all and earned this win."
It was somewhat fitting, though, that to get over the hump, the Scorpions had to survive a battle.
Early on, behind some inspired play by a number of different guys, Oakland Mills (22-3) was seemingly in complete control. The team jumped ahead 14-6 following a thunderous dunk from Ndiaye and then a 3-pointer by Naquan Williams-Day (13 points). By early in the second quarter, that lead was up to nine, 22-13, and at the half it was still a comfortable seven-point advantage, 29-22.
Then, coming out of halftime, Oakland Mills nearly put the game away. A 10-0 run to open the third quarter gave the Scorpions their largest lead of the game, 39-22.
"Mamadou was a freak tonight .. he was literally willing the ball in the basket tonight and diving all over the floor. I thought his energy sparked everyone else," Browne said. "Daniel (Kiely) was helping us break their press and he was getting to the rim, Naquan hit some big ones … really I thought overall we were doing a great job playing together."
But considering how history has gone, Browne knew things were far from over. And, sure enough, Douglass (19-5) began to start chipping away.
After trading baskets, a 15-4 run by the Eagles between the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth suddenly brought it all the way back to a 2-point game, 49-47.
"We showed the heart of a champion that fourth quarter," Douglass coach Tyrone Massenburg said. "One of the things that changed the momentum was that we started making shots and that allowed us to apply a little pressure, which we hadn't been able to do much early on when the ball wasn't going in the basket."
Oakland Mills answered behind Will Robinson Jr. (15 points), who scored 10 straight Scorpions points down the stretch of regulation after being held to just a single point prior to that. Following a lay-up by Robinson and a foul shot by Kiely (12 points), the Scorpions were back in front by six, 60-54, with 52 seconds left.
"It was a terrible, terrible first three and a half quarters, but I love the game and it never stops. So for me, especially when I saw Mamdou go out for a little, I think it kicked in that I wanted this more than any of my years in high school," Robinson said. "I just decided it was time to put up or shut up."
But just before Oakland Mills could close the door, Douglass' Trevor Johnson (22 points) delivered some heroics. He hit a three and a lay-up to trim the deficit to one with 12 seconds left, then after a Robinson foul shot, proceeded to go coast-to-coast for a game-tying lay-up as time expired.
Browne couldn't help but be overcome by déjà vu, but also knew he had to rally the troops.
"In my mind, I'm thinking here we go again. But, at the same time, I'm at half court looking at the kids and trying to pump them up because their heads were down," Browne said. "We've been in some overtime games before and played very well, so I think once we got them over to the bench the kids were regrouped and ready to start over."
In the extra period, Oakland Mills didn't sink a single field goal. But over the first three minutes of overtime, the Scorpions outscored Douglass 8-0 by attacking the rim, getting to the foul line and making just enough of the ensuing free throws.
Douglass tried to mount one final comeback, but the damage had been done and Oakland Mills had the cushion it needed to earn its berth in the state semifinals. The Scorpions are slated to square off against Oakdale at 7 p.m. on Friday at the University of Maryland's Xfinity Center in the 2A state semifinals.
So while basking in the first regional championship for the program in the last 15 years, Ndiaye quickly acknowledged that there is still work to be done.
"It's great and we are going to enjoy it for the moment, for the night, but tomorrow we have to get back in the lab and get back to work," he said. "We have to focus on winning the next game and understand this is just another step."
Oakland Mills 73, Douglass-PG 70 OT
OM (22-3): Ndiaye 19, Robinson Jr. 15, Williams-Day 13, Kiely 12, Aaron 6, Hopkins 6, Graves 2.
D (19-5): Johnson 22, Hayes 21, Green 8, Carey 6, Byrd 4, D. Smith 4, Thompson 3, Pitts 2.