Howard Community College coach Mike Smelkinson cut down the final piece of the net, raised it toward the rafters and then leapt from the ladder he was standing on into the waiting arms of forward DJ Tucker-Harry.
It was a dangerous but somewhat fitting celebration when you consider that, less than a year since his return to the program, Smelkinson had just officially helped the Dragons leap back into the national spotlight.
On Sunday in front of a packed home crowd, Howard CC continued its remarkable turnaround campaign with a 104-85 victory over CCBC Dundalk to clinch the Region 20 tournament championship and the program’s second-ever trip to the NJCAA DII National Tournament. After posting a 4-22 record last winter, the Dragons (25-6) have completely changed their direction.
“This is just another incredible moment in what has been a truly special year. Coming back and coaching for a team where you are from and being able to have this kind of success … it just means a little more,” Smelkinson said. “I just told the guys in the locker room that this is the best team I’ve coached during my time at Junior College and that includes the [three] other teams that won region titles. There’s just something about this group, they seemed destined for this.”
Smelkinson — a former Howard County Player of the Year as a player at Long Reach High in 2004 — wasn’t the only one getting to celebrate a championship in a gym close to home on Sunday. In fact, three of the team’s top players in the victory over Dundalk graduated from Howard County high schools.
Oakland Mills High alumni Naquan Williams-Day and Daeshawn Eaton started all three tournament games and scored seven or more points in each contest. Williams-Day, who scored 25 points in a win over Montgomery College and 21 in the semifinals against Garrett College, was named tournament MVP. Eaton poured in 17 points to go along with four assists in the final.
“This was all a part of the plan when I signed up to play at Howard CC. Coaches told me to just work hard from day one,” Eaton said. “I feel like we play our best games at home and just having the tournament at our place this year, it played in our favor.”
Tucker-Harry, a Marriotts Ridge High grad, also delivered a standout effort in the championship game with 10 points and a team-high seven rebounds.
Overall, Howard CC had six players score in double figures against Dundalk with Michael Gray leading the way overall with 25 points.
After losing a one-point game against the Lions on the road back in January, the Dragons were able to flip the script this time around in convincing fashion.
“There were two major differences from the last time we played them — we were at home this time, where we have been unstoppable all year, and we had Mike Gray this time,” Smelkinson said. “Mike didn’t play against them earlier this season because of a twisted ankle and he came out fired up in that first half.”
Howard CC, which wraps up a perfect 17-0 campaign at home this winter, built a 49-36 lead by halftime in the title game and increased its advantage to up over 20 points just seven minutes into the second half following a layup by Williams-Day.
From there, Dundalk never got closer than 15 the rest of the way. Smelkinson, however, didn’t feel fully comfortable until the final couple minutes.
“Against a team that can hit threes in bunches the way that they can, you just feel like no lead is truly safe. They were down 17 in the first round against Potomac State and came back to win in overtime, so we were careful not to let up.”
The Dragons ended up scoring over 100 points for the seventh time this season.
Smelkinson, who started his head coaching career at Howard CC from 2011-14 before transitioning to Harford Community College the last five years, said this season is unfolding about as perfectly as he could have envisioned when he decided to return to the program at the end of last spring.
Looking ahead to the National Tournament, which is scheduled to begin on March 17 in Danville, Illinois, Smelkinson said he’s hoping that the lessons he learned from leading the program to its only previous trip to the tournament in 2013 help this year’s team make a run at the title.
“Having been there before as a coach, I know what to expect and how to prepare. There’s a lot that goes into it,” Smelkinson said. “But we are really excited and this team is still hungry. Having beaten two top 10 teams by 25 plus points already this year, we know that we have the talent to play with anyone. Now it’s just a matter of proving it to everyone else.”