River Hill hosts Reservoir in the boys basketball 3A East region semifinals on Saturday night.
For all the near misses the last three years, seniors Charlie Thomas and Gary Sandler, along with the rest of the River Hill boys basketball team, seem determined to make up for lost time.
The Hawks' duo combined for 40 points Saturday night, helping their team battle through some prolonged scoring droughts, to hold off a resilient Reservoir team, 57-53, in the 3A East regional semifinals. After not winning a single playoff game since the 2008-09 season, River Hill (19-5) has now won two straight and finds itself in a region championship game on Monday against Centennial.
"The difference right now is maybe experience and also senior leadership. I think we just want it way more than we did in previous years," Sandler said. "This is me and Charles' last ride after four years, we hadn't won a playoff game, so we feel like we have to make up for it now."
The game itself was a roller coaster ride that started with both squads stalling out of the gates. Neither team got on the scoreboard for the first 6 minutes and 20 seconds of the opening quarter, as a made free throw by Reservoir's Johvon Garcia finally broke the scoreless drought.
River Hill, responded after that though to close the opening period on a 6-0 run to take a five-point lead.
"It looked like a bad game of pick-up at the Columbia Gym … but again our defense hung tough," River Hill coach Matt Graves said. "I always tell the kids that you can always have a bad shooting night, but you can't have a bad defensive night."
Reservoir (14-10) didn't get its first field goal until the opening possession of the second quarter on an old-fashioned three-point play by Seth Henry. Gators' coach Mike Coughlan said there were a number of factors that played into the cold start for both teams, particularly the game being called much tighter than he would have liked.
"It was frustrating because our whole thing was we were trying to get the pace going and they were calling hand checks and touch fouls all over the place," Coughlan said. "They weren't letting anyone play out there."
Henry and Andrew Phillips, who finished with 18 points apiece, did finally combine to get the Gators on track in the second quarter. By the half, Reservoir trailed by just three, 20-17.
Then in the third quarter, courtesy of an 11-3 run punctuated by a 3-pointer by Phillips, the Gators had grabbed their first lead of the evening, 28-26.
It was at that moment, late in the third quarter, that Graves decided to switch things up and go with a four-guard line-up. It paid immediate dividends as River Hill proceeded to run off 13 straight points between the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth. Sandler and Thomas combined for 11 of those points.
"I thought by going with four guards, they would have to expand their defense out to guard us, give us more shooters and it would allow us to get some touches to Charlie without a hard double team," Graves said. "I think that's what developed that run. We had the right combination of guards there that were confident and making shots."
But even with the Hawks suddenly up 11 with just seven minutes left, Reservoir never quit. The Gators heated up from beyond the arc, finishing with four threes in the final quarter, to get back within two points on two different occasions.
Following a 3-pointer by Jon Mierzwa with 50 seconds left, River Hill's lead was 53-51.
But in the closing seconds, Sandler stepped up and delivered from the foul line. He hit two in a row with 32 seconds left to make it a two-possession game and then added another with 12 seconds left to help seal things.
"We just tried to stick together and tried not to panic. And in the end, we made free throws, we came down and we hit big shots and, on the last possession, we played great defense," Sandler said.
Going into the game against Centennial, riding a streak now of 18 wins in their last 19 games, Thomas says he and his teammates are just going to try and keep enjoying the ride.
"We're just taking it as it goes … not putting too much pressure on ourselves," Thomas said. "We are just doing the same things we've been doing (all season), running our offense, playing good defense and trying to grind out games."
River Hill 57, Reservoir 53
RH (19-5): Thomas 24, Sandler 16, Heitzmann 5, Clark 3, DeSimone 3, Martin 2, Mentle 2, Borucki 2.
Re (14-10): Henry 18, Phillips 18, J. Garcia 6, Mierzwa 6, Obering 2, Maloney 2, Weith 1.
Half: 20-17 RH.
Oakland Mills 85, Patuxent 49
The Scorpions opened up a 24-point lead by halftime behind its "big three" — Mamadou Ndiaye (19 points), Will Robinson Jr. (18) and Daniel Kiely (18) — and never looked back on the way to the convincing victory in the 2A South region semifinals.
"We actually started pretty slow, missing like our first seven shots. But we were aggressive and eventually were able to open things up toward the end of the first quarter," Browne said. "Once we warmed up, the big three went crazy on both ends. I was really pleased with how we attacked the rim tonight."
Oakland Mills will now host Douglass-PG, a winner over Largo on Saturday, for the region championship on Monday night at 7 p.m.
OM (21-3): Ndaiye 19, Kiely 18, Robinson Jr. 18, Williams-Day 9, Aaron 8, Hopkins 5, Harris 2, Seyfried 2, Stanfield 2, Smith 2.
P: Maddox 20, Gross 16, Leonard 5, Watkins 3, Maughan 2, Pendleton 1, Young 1, Kelley 1.