HOWARD COUNTY, MD — As the Maryland high school boys basketball season concludes with various state championship games this weekend, only one county team remains.
Led by nine seniors, River Hill (21-4) will make the 25-mile trek south to Xfinity Center on Friday night for their 9 p.m. tip-off against North Caroline in the 2A semifinals. Win that, and the Hawks will battle either Oakdale or Lake Clifton the following evening for a chance to win the school’s second-ever state title. The first came more than a decade earlier in 2007.
That’s also the only other time coach Matt Graves’ team has advanced this far.
With River Hill’s biggest game of the season on the horizon, boys basketball beat writer Kyle Stackpole spoke with senior and starting guard Luke Champion, the team’s third leading scorer at 10.9 points per game. The two discussed the Hawks’ expectations entering the year, their mindset after a rough end to the regular season and what must happen for them to return to Clarksville as state champions.
Q: After winning the county title last year, this team had high hopes entering this season. Now, you’re two wins away from a state title. How have you been able to not only sustain last season’s success but also advance even further?
A: After last season, we had a bunch of guys coming back. We knew we would also have a good group of guys coming up from JV, so we all had the same goal: we all wanted to make a deep run to the playoffs at the end of the season. So, we all focused up early in the year, and you could just tell there was this energy in practice, everyone was getting after it. It was intense, with people guarding each other and getting into each other’s faces, so I think that was a big part of it.
Jaden Martin, Jacob Krause, Dylan Daniels, they’re all seniors. They all stepped up. Brendan McKenna as well. OJ also stepped up. A bunch of guys stepped up this year and really showed what they can do. As a team, we run well together and mesh well together on defense and offense, so I think that’s a big part of it. Also, we have a big senior group.
You seemed to become more assertive on the offensive end during the second half of the regular season and the playoffs. What has led to that progression?
The beginning of the season, I was a little rusty coming out I guess. As the season progressed, I just kept wanting to be the gym, getting shot ups, working on ball handling and all of that stuff. Columbia gym right down the road, I go there with guys on the team, trying to get there after practice and get shots up, run 4x4 and just really trying to get into the gym as much as possible and just trying to get better.
You mentioned you and your teammates sometimes play pick-up basketball at Columbia gym during the season. How does that differ from organized practices? Has it helped you during high school games?
It definitely helps playing 4v4 because it lets you work on your 1-on-1 defense and 1-on-1 offense. You can work on those skill moves or just specific things you want to work on. You can just do anything. And then you can try to bring it to the practices or to the games because practices are practices, but it’s kind of more of a game-like in the pick-up games, so you get a more game-like feel getting shots up.
After an 18-2 start, you guys ended the regular season with back-to-back losses. What do you think led to those defeats to Oakland Mills and Glenelg?
I don’t know. I think we got out to leads in both games and maybe tried to coast a little and maybe didn’t lock up on defense like we should have and just kept letting them get back in both games. And then down the stretch, they were just able to make more shots than we did. So we just didn’t finish the game I guess you could say. We worked a lot on the week that we had off on defense, like finishing possessions and rebounding and all of that stuff that we needed to polish up.
What was the impact of losing those two games right before the playoffs?
It definitely motivated us. I think if we had ended up winning both of those games, I think we would have just coasted through that week of practice and been like, ‘Oh, we got it. We can make a run in the playoffs.’ But I think we really had to bear down that week because we lost two in a row. Coach wasn’t happy, we definitely weren’t happy, so we knew we had to get after it, and I think that set the tone for the rest of the way.
When did this team realize making the state semifinals was a realistic expectation?
When we saw who we could potentially play in the playoff, and then when we knew who were were playing in the playoffs. Marriotts Ridge in the first round. We had already beaten them, so we just had to bear down in that week of practice. We had that first game off, so we had a gap in between games. We had a really tough week of practice, ran a lot, really prepared for Marriotts Ridge and then Oakland Mills was the next game if we had beaten Marriotts Ridge. So, we just prepared, and then we got to Oakland Mills and we knew anything could happen at that point, so we just tried to run our stuff and it worked out.
Coach Matt Graves has talked at length about how each contributor has fully accepted their role on this team. What has your role been?
If I get a shot, I’ll shoot that. I’ll drive, look to kick out. On offense, I think those are the main things. Not taking bad shots. Early in the season, I think I was looking too much to shoot sometimes and maybe taking bad shots. But we’ve worked on running the offense through and taking open shots, and I think that’s started to kick in.
What does it mean to this team to secure the program’s second-ever region title?
We’re kind of right where we wanted to be at the beginning of the season. We wanted to do good in the regular season and make a run in the playoffs. It’s just great to be here. It’s a great feeling to have: regional champion. It feels good to bring one to River Hill and for Coach Graves as well. It just feels good all around.
What do you think this team has to do to finish the season as state champions?
We really got to bear down on defense. I think our last game, first half was iffy, but second half we really locked down, and I think that was the difference in the game. So I think that’s going to be a big one. All five guys just have to step up, box out when the shot goes up and just find a man and try and lock down every shot they get and play good defense.
You guys played man-to-man defense the entire regular season and then switched to matchup zone in the first two-and-a-half playoff games. Finally, you changed back to man-to-man in the second half of your regional title win over Thomas Stone. What defense will you play Friday against North Caroline?