Old Mill boys' basketball coach Paul Bunting may have sacrificed a high seed in the 4A Region IV playoffs, but by doing so, the coach showed that winning at all costs is not as important as his kids.

Hisdecision to sit down his best player going into a "big" game proved to be the right one. Star guard Ravon Austin had his bum knee examined Saturday morning, will have it scoped tomorrow and will be out about three weeks with torn cartilage.

Friday night, the Patriots dropped a 64-52 decision to the front-running and defending county/region champion Annapolis Panthers at Old Mill. The Pats played the game without Austin, and opposing coach John Brady acknowledged that it was a factor.

"Well, he's a senior,leader on the team, one of their leading scorers. So it definitely was an impact," said Brady.

Austin had been averaging 16.4 points agame for the 8-3 Patriots, but more importantly, the 5-foot-11 senior guard provides the team with on-court leadership and usually great defense.

"I thought he was our best defensive player last year, but he hadn't been moving well (this year) after spraining his knee in preseason," said Bunting.

"He was told to wear a brace and he could play, but I'm not sure that he should have been playing. Right now I don't think he could cover you, Pat." (A compliment?)

Austin played the first two games last week, scoring 13 points Monday night (Jan. 13) in a 75-70 victory over Glen Burnie and came back with 22 in a66-63 overtime loss to South River (11-1). Thursday at practice withthe Pats preparing for Friday's encounter with Annapolis, Bunting noticed Austin favoring his knee and adjusting his brace.

"I went over to him and said, 'By the way, how is that thing feeling?' " said Bunting. "It didn't look to me like he moves as well on it."

So, the seventh-year head coach asked to see the knee. Austin took the brace off, and Bunting could not believe what he saw.

"It was two to three times the size of his other knee," said Bunting. "So, I said that's it. I can't in good conscience allow a kid to go out there and play on that thing. I told him he was sitting until I know exactly what's wrong with the knee. I mean, it was enormous."

On Saturday morning, Bunting sent Austin to Dr. Sam Blick, an orthopedic surgeon in Calvert County, an old friend of the coach.

Austin is out for aboutthree weeks, Bunting said yesterday.

"Dr. Blick said there is definitely no ligament damage, and that it looks like a partial tear of the cartilage. He was amazed that the kid could play on it. Before hescopes the knee Tuesday, Dr. Blick will make sure that it is not anything more serious than the partial tear," said Bunting, who was relieved that Austin did not have season-ending torn ligaments.

Bunting acted in the best interests of one of his players. What he did is what most county coaches would have done. It's called having your priorities in order, and for that he should be commended.

The kid would have continued playing and suffering for his team and possibly caused permanent damage to his knee. Bunting's stepping in makes you feelgood about high school sports, doesn't it?

Odd Mill doesn't play Annapolis (9-1) again until Tuesday, Feb. 18, in the Cap City tournament. By that time, the Panthers may have a firm grip on the top seed in the 4A Region IV playoffs, and that would mean home-court advantage.

Annapolis, the only county team besides South River (whose onlyloss was to Leonardtown of St. Mary's County in the season-opener) not to lose to a county opponent yet, completed a really big week at Old Mill.

The Panthers, who have lost only to Cardozo of Washingtonin the Cap City Classic final by 86-70, won at Chesapeake (7-4) Monday by 55-48; by 60-39 over Broadneck at home Wednesday; and then at Old Mill. As far as post-season playoff points, the Panthers are 8-0.

Christmas tournament games do not count. As a result, the Panthersare in great shape at about the halfway mark with a two-game lead over both Severna Park (9-2) and Meade (8-3) and three over Old Mill (8-3) in games that really mean something.

South River's boys are rolling in Class 3A, knocking off their sixth Class 4A school, Arundel (4-8), Friday night by 94-77, as Edmund Hicks poured in a career-high30 points. The win was the Seahawks' school-record 11th in a row.

County high school students have exams this week, so no hoop games will be played until Friday, when South River will entertain Chesapeake. That will serve as the Hawks' tune-up for the big showdown the following Tuesday at Annapolis.

The two South County teams have been on a collision course and will take to the court as the county leaguedivision leaders, presumably unbeaten. South River should take Chesapeake, and Annapolis is expected to win at Northeast (3-8) Friday.

Annapolis leads the Friendship Division, while South River is No. 1 in the Bay Division -- for whatever those divisions are worth.

Severna Park had been the 4A Region IV front-runner until last week, when the Falcons blew two close games, losing Monday night at Meade, 72-71, and Friday at home to Glen Burnie (7-4) by 73-72.

So, the Falcons have rejoined the pack with Meade, Old Mill and Broadneck in the annual chase of Annapolis.

Some things never change.

One thing that has changed is the Severn School hoop team of Jim Doyle. The Admirals are rolling with the return of previously injured backcourt players, Brad Fowler and Jake Mack.

Severn (9-4) buried arch-rival St. Mary's (4-9), 69-48, Friday night, as Mack banged in 29 points and Fowler scored eight, going 6-for-8 at the line. The victory avenged a61-59 loss to the Saints in the latter's Christmas Tournament, when Severn played without its two junior guards.

The Admirals look to have the best boys basketball team in school history and have a greatshot at winning the Maryland Scholastic Association C Conference championship.

Unfortunately, nothing much has changed at Archbishop Spalding where the Cavs are 1-10, but Coach Lee Dove is looking forward to rest of his schedule.

Canterbury, from Washington, "visited us tonight and they made themselves right at home, 103-50," understated Dove on the 24-Hour SPORTSLINE (647-2499) Friday night.

The visitors poured it on in the final period, erupting for 42 points to only13 by Spalding. Brian Mohr and Edgar Wright had 14 points each and Rich Reilly a dozen for the losers.

"Everybody from Canterbury got in on the act; one of their big guys had 42 points. We were just out-classed, and I don't know if we will be playing them again," Dove said. "The good news for us is that we are finally, finally, finally in the C Conference from here on out."

Whether his Cavs win any of their remaining games or not doesn't matter as much as the fact that his team will at least be competitive and have a chance to win.

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