During Reservoir’s first scrimmage in November, senior Ryan Saunderson tore his labrum and had to have surgery — only returning for the Gators’ final four games of the regular season.
On Tuesday in the 3A East Region II semifinals against River Hill, though, Saunderson was on the floor when it mattered most.
After being held scoreless for the first 31 minutes, Saunderson corralled a rebound off a missed 3-pointer from Jaylen Manning and converted a put-back basket with 36 seconds remaining for what ended up being the deciding points in a 36-35 Gators’ victory.
“I wasn’t even ready to crash the boards because (Manning) was hot,” Saunderson said. “It came right to me and I was ready to finish the game for us.”
Reservoir (19-4) had built a 10-point lead in the third quarter, only to see River Hill (12-12) come clawing back and take the lead, 35-34, heading into the final minute. When the Gators’ needed a play, however, Saunderson provided it — helping the team advance into a region championship matchup against Atholton on Thursday.
Until four weeks ago, Reservoir head coach Ian Pope thought Saunderson may miss the entire season. However, he was cleared and made his season debut in a 57-51 loss to Marriotts Ridge on Feb. 13.
“I feel like he was rewarded for all his hard work,” Pope said. “He’s been injured a lot over the course of his time here. Just to see him work his way back, he’s never missed a game. He rode the bus, he sat on the bench, he went straight from physical therapy to ride on the bus. We caught a break with him being cleared.”
Saunderson wouldn’t have been able to make that play without the hot shooting of fellow senior Rashod Ballard. The Gators’ guard came alive in the second half, hitting five three-pointers to score a game-high 15 points while his teammates struggled to score inside.
Ballard and Aria Ameli combined to hit four straight threes in the second half to give Reservoir a 28-18 lead with 2:18 to go in the third quarter. Later Ballard hit threes on consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, snapping a seven-plus-minute scoring drought to give the Gators a 34-31 lead.
“A lot of recognition went to the other guys on the team,” Pope said. “[Rashod] just waited his turn, stayed humble, locked in and took it to a different level for the playoffs.”
River Hill had one more response, as junior Ethan Smith hit back-to-back shots to give the Hawks a 35-34 lead with 1:06 remaining. After Saunderson’s layup, Jackson Graves missed a three-pointer, but Reservoir couldn’t ice the game, missing the front end of two one-and-ones.
River Hill coach Matt Graves drew up a play for leading scorer on the season Nick Marshall, but his jumper hit off the front rim.
River Hill controlled the tempo of the game like they did in the first matchup during the regular season, limiting Reservoir to one field goal in the first quarter and just five in the first half. However, the Hawks had similar offensive struggles in the first half, going on a five-minute scoring drought to end the second quarter to allow Reservoir to take a 14-13 halftime lead.
Still, Graves was proud of how his team continued to defend and make shots late, giving them a chance for one last shot that came up short.
“It was making plays at the right moment,” Graves said. “Reservoir got one extra rebound and made the offensive board a bucket and we had an opportunity to win it and unfortunately it rolled out.”
Reservoir 36, River Hill 35
Re (19-4): Ballard 15, Hill 9, Glasper 4, Manning 3, Ameli 3, Saunderson 2.
RH (12-12): Saliu 9, Smith 8, Marshall 7, McKoy 6, Lawal 5.
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Half: 14-13 Re.