Centennial boys basketball blew a double-digit lead in its last game against Walter Johnson and was determined to not let that happen again. They didn’t, though things got much closer than any would’ve thought.
Despite the Eagles building a 20-point first-quarter lead, Hammond surged back in the second half. However, Centennial held off the charge for a 58-52 win.
“That’s been our Achilles’ heel,” Centennial coach Rob Slopek said. “We were 3-3 in games we either led or were tied the last four minutes of the game. So, it’s the growth that we had. We didn’t panic, I think tonight we didn’t play afraid to lose. I think that’s where we were earlier in the year. I think tonight we said, ‘If you make a mistake, you make a mistake.’ The game is predicated off of mistakes. It didn’t affect our guys at all, they just stuck to the game plan and did what we do.”
The Eagles (4-5, 2-4 Howard County), playing their only home game until Jan. 23, came out energized in the opening quarter. Ty Beck-Winter, Adrien Nyom and Charlie Crabtree each knocked down 3-pointers in the opening three minutes. That was just the beginning. Centennial’s stifling traps forced the Golden Bears into several early turnovers, while the offense totaled five 3s.
“We definitely wanted to come out with a lot of energy,” Beck-Winter said. “We emphasize moving the ball up and down the court, getting in transition. On defense, we didn’t want to give them anything inside, especially Justin Christian. We just forced them to take outside shots and were just pushing the pace.”
Hammond trailed by 19 to start the second quarter, but responded. The Golden Bears (4-5, 2-3) outscored the Eagles 13-7 in the frame, ratcheting up their defensive intensity. Their offense also found success as Christian closed the first half with a transition layup off a steal just before the buzzer.
That defensive intensity remained in the second half. Centennial connected on just two field goals in the opening six minutes with Kamari Fassett spearheading the defense, gathering multiple steals leading to transition opportunities.
“The whole message at halftime and after the game was, ‘What can we do to fix the start?’” Hammond coach Michael Salapata said. “When you dig a 20-point hole, you have no margin for error. There’s no wiggle room.”
Fassett delivered an emphatic transition jam, which brought Hammond within four late in the third quarter. On Centennial’s ensuing possession, Nyom knocked down a critical 3-pointer, giving it added cushion entering the final quarter.
“We know we’re not always the most athletic guys on the court, maybe not the fastest always,” Beck-Winter said. “We know that the stuff we do will work and we trust our teammates. Seeing Adrien hit that 3 was huge for us because that was a one-point swing after the dunk and we knew that we were in a great spot to win the game.”
At the start of the fourth quarter, Slopek inserted sophomore Josh Frazier into the lineup, who’s been working his way back from an injury. Frazier’s athleticism and speed helped counteract Hammond’s active hands defensively and allowed Centennial to find a better offensive flow.
“I was just thinking, ‘Be the spark for the team in the fourth and keep us going,’” Frazier said. “That’s pretty much what I was thinking the whole game when we were on the bench. I was just hyping up my teammates, so we could carry it into a win.”
While Centennial’s offense got going, Hammond’s did as well, fueled by Brando Campos. The Golden Bears continued to trim the deficit as Nick Wilk knocked down a 3-pointer, making it a one-possession game with 4:43 remaining. Once again, the Eagles responded.
Beck-Winter and Frazier knocked down clutch free throws, aided by a Tyler Longwell three, pushing the lead back to double digits. Beck-Winter added several more free throws down the stretch, finishing with a team and season-high 20 points. Crabtree and Nyom also finished in double figures in a well-balanced offensive attack.