River Hill boys basketball is no stranger to playing in close games. Seven of its first 12 games going into Friday’s meeting with Centennial have been decided by three points or less.
Coach Matt Graves emphasized the importance of his Hawks being the tougher team and they heard the coach’s message loud and clear, setting the tone from the outset. The Hawks jumped out to a 15-point lead after the first and that was all the cushion they needed in the 48-36 win.
“Basketball is a game of momentum and we came out ready to play,” Graves said. “Being tough is just doing the little things, setting good screens, getting open shots, making the extra pass and building confidence. I always stress to them, confidence breeds success. That first quarter really got us going. It got everybody happy. It’s hard to keep that momentum going throughout, but it built us a buffer, which was huge.”
Running a methodical Princeton offense, River Hill (8-5, 7-3 Howard County) effectively moved the ball. Matt Behrmann knocked down a pair of corner 3-pointers in the opening 2:30. Behrmann wasn’t the only Hawk to find success from behind the arc, Josh Abu hit two 3-pointers, while Braden Sauritch also connected from deep in the opening quarter. The Hawks held the Eagles without a field goal over the final 3:56 of the quarter and just six total points.
“We didn’t follow our fundamentals,” Centennial coach Rob Slopek said. “There are things that we do defensively that prevent those corner threes. We said, ‘Matt loves those corner threes, the kid can shoot it.’ Our defensive principles don’t allow that. They came in here and they pushed us around in the first quarter and we never pushed back. We’ve got to learn from that, because that’s a game we can’t come out like that.”
Both offenses stalled in the opening four minutes of the second. However, Centennial (7-8, 4-7) found its footing late in the first half catalyzed by Josh Frazier and got within 12 at the break.
A physical game throughout, neither offense hit its stride in the third quarter. The Hawks created open shots but were unable to convert, scoring just four points in the frame. Centennial’s offense didn’t fare much better, as the Hawks’ relentless help-side defense made it challenging to convert tough shots.
“That’s one of our biggest emphases in practice, is giving really strong help defense because it makes it much harder for the opponent,” Behrmann said. “That’s why we’re able to make them uncomfortable by having strong help defense.”
River Hill led by eight entering the fourth and Sauritch decided it was time for the Hawks’ offensive struggles to end. The junior scored seven points in the opening three minutes of the quarter, helping the Hawks build their lead back to double-digits. He connected on his third triple of the game, also adding a tough jumper late in the shot clock with a defender draped all over him.
Centennial continued to fight back and came within six on a Frazier layup with 1:59 remaining. But Sauritch wasn’t done. On the ensuing possession, he displayed veteran composure, knocking down a runner in the lane. He also added four free throws inside the final minute to ice it, totaling 13 of River Hill’s 16 fourth-quarter points, finishing the night with a team-high 21.
“I watch a lot of high-level basketball, so I feel like I have a high basketball IQ,” Sauritch said. “We’ve had a lot of close games throughout the season. So, I feel like I’ve built up the knowledge and IQ of what to do late in the game after past mistakes. I just felt ready for the moment and I wasn’t nervous at all.”