HOWARD COUNTY, MD — It would be easy to pinpoint a last-minute 3-pointer from Aria Ameli as the reason Reservoir boys basketball outlasted Thomas Johnson in the 3A state semifinals Thursday night in College Park.
After all, it was the most important shot of the game given the time and score, and it nearly didn’t happen. During a Thomas Johnson timeout with fewer than 90 seconds to play and the Gators down, 47-46, coach Michael Coughlan sensed the Patriots would switch to a zone defense out of the break. So just before play resumed, he called a timeout of his own to insert Ameli — a sophomore sharpshooter who entered the contest with more than 60 3-pointers on the season and 17 over his first three playoff games.
Despite missing his first four attempts, Ameli did not hesitate to unload a corner 3-pointer with a Patriots defender flying at him. His only field goal of the game swirled around the basket and through the hoop, propelling Reservoir ahead. Two free throws from KyJuan McCallum clinched the 51-47 come-from behind victory moments later, sending the Gators to their first-ever state championship.
So yes, Ameli’s conversion gave the Gators’ their final lead of the night, but contributions from several teammates were nearly just as important. There was Ryan Saunderson, who Ameli replaced in the starting lineup earlier this year, stuffing the stat sheet with 11 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals. There was Josh Odunowo (11 points, 13 rebounds) dominating inside like he has all season. And there was McCallum (team-high 14 points), who not only made the game-sealing free throws but put the Gators up, 46-43, with a 3-pointer with less than two minutes to play. Even Jaylen Barrett, who has played sparingly throughout the year, gave the Gators a lift with a long ball before halftime.
The Gators’ needed all of these seniors to step up, as well Ameli and fellow sophomore Kaleb Glasper, who erased the Patriots’ lead with a personal 5-0 scoring run in the fourth quarter. It was the only way they’d make history and earn the chance to play two-time state champion Poly on Saturday at 3 p.m.
Now comes the opportunity to achieve the ultimate goal: winning a state title.
“It’s the chemistry and character of these kids from Day 1,” Coughlan said. “They all hang out together, they’re all great students, they’re all character kids. There has not been one issue with this group the entire year, and I think when things get tough, both of those things come into play — chemistry and character. Chemistry with the kids getting along with one another, and the character of their makeup. When times get tough, they don’t put their heads down. They make the plays that need to be made, and we’re going to the state final on Saturday. I just can’t say enough about this group.”
Turnovers and missed perimeter shots plagued 3A East region champion Reservoir (18-8 overall) for much of the first quarter, allowing Thomas Johnson to jump out to an 11-6 advantage. The Patriots could not get too far ahead, however, as late 3-pointers from McCallum and Saunderson salvaged an otherwise sluggish period and kept the Gators within 15-12.
The aforementioned sequence proved to be emblematic of how Reservoir stayed within striking distance throughout the contest against Thomas Johnson (21-5). Whenever the duo of seniors Emmanuel Powe and Richard Rivas (combined 33 points) put the Patriots ahead by two possessions, the Gators immediately responded with a basket.
It happened in the second quarter, when a rare three-point attempt from Odunowo swished through the net to pull his team within 22-19. On the next possession, McCallum secured one of his four steals and cruised towards the basket uncontested. By halftime, the Gators were within 27-26.
“Everybody has bad games,” McCallum said, “but if somebody has a bad game, Coach [Coughlan] is going to make the sub, and somebody will come in and pick up for him.”
Reservoir can thank a trio of seniors for keeping them in the game in the third quarter. Odunowo started the scoring with an old-fashion three-point play, and following turnovers on three straight possessions, his layup brought the Gators within 32-30. Then McCallum used a nifty move to get to the basket for a layup, and Kaden Toler hit two foul shots, tying the game at 34.
Even so, the Gators could not pull ahead. By way of a 3-pointer and two layups in the final two-and-a-half minutes, Thomas Johnson entered the final frame with a five-point lead.
“It was pretty even for most of the game,” Patriots coach John Manley said. “I thought it was a really good high school basketball game. The ball just didn’t fall our way tonight.”
Statistically, neither team had much to brag about, combining for 37 turnovers and a field goal percentage of just over 37 percent. But in terms of late-game shot making and rapid momentum swings, this state semifinal had it. Not known as a scorer, Glasper poured five unanswered points to knot the contest at 39. Rivas responded with a free throw and a 3-pointer, while Saunderson knocked in a pair of jumpers.
After McCallum connected on a 3-pointer to put the Raiders up, 46-45, with about two minutes to go, he held his follow through and just stood there, basking in the cheers that overcame the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center. Thanks to him and his teammates, they’ll have one more chance to play on this court, one final high school basketball memory to share together.
“It means everything,” Saunderson said of making the state final. “Our team is not like other teams. It’s a family.”
Reservoir (18-8 overall) — 51, Thomas Johnson (21-5) — 47
Re — KyJuan McCallum 14, Josh Odunowo 11, Ryan Saunderson 11, Kaleb Glasper 5, Kaden Toler 4, Aria Ameli 3, Jaylen Barrett 3.
TJ — Emmanuel Powe 19, Richard Rivas 14, Shamon Gennes 5, Bennett Commander 4, Jeremiah Morris 3, Nate Owusu 2.
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Halftime: 27-26, TJ