Early in the game, River Hill's 6-foot-10 center Kevin Steenberge was punched hard in the chest by the closed fist of Friendly's Courtney Franklin as they stood near the foul line. No foul was called. That's when the Hawks knew they were in for a physical contest in their Class 3A East quarterfinal.
Friendly, ranked No. 7 by The Washington Post, trailed at halftime by a point but never ceased its physical play, eventually wearing down a less-physical Hawks team, 68-51, last night at River Hill. The Patriots will play Annapolis in the semifinals.
In the second half, Steenberge was again punched hard in the chest, forcing the senior captain to leave the game. No foul was called.
"The first one knocked the wind out of me, but I was able to recover," said Steenberge. "The second one I couldn't get my breath back. This is the kind of play I faced all summer, so I'm used to it, but it becomes a problem when it's not being called. They were calling hand checks on us, and they were letting them throw haymakers to the chest and elbows to the mouth. That's just how it works sometimes."
Despite Friendly's aggressive, man-to-man defense, the Patriots of Prince George's County were called for only 13 fouls. River Hill employed a zone defense and was called for 19 fouls.
Twelfth-ranked River Hill (17-6), a team that lives and dies by its ability to get to the foul line, went to the line 10 times - a season low. The Hawks average 22 trips to the line.
"They got away with a lot of reaching calls that helped their aggressive style," Hawks coach Brian Van Deusen said. "But we proved we could play with them, and Kevin stepped up like he has all year."
Steenberge scored 28 points, had 20 rebounds and seven blocked shots and kept the Hawks in the game until a 9-0 run by Friendly (19-4) at the end of the third quarter put the Patriots ahead 47-38.
Two baskets by Steenberge to start the fourth period halted Friendly's momentum briefly. But a 10-2 run gave Friendly a 57-44 lead that River Hill found impossible to overcome.
"We had to go to a man-to-man defense to start the fourth quarter and No. 12 [Steve Nelson] was hard to guard," Van Deusen said.
Nelson, a guard, scored nine points in the fourth quarter and 26 for the game. He was 5-for-8 at the foul line in the fourth period and 9-for-12 overall.
"You can't blame the loss on the refs. Friendly is a very talented team," Steenberge said. "But the refs made it tough. I'm the speaking captain for our team, and in the third quarter when asked if a foul against Matt Hostetler was because he pushed or because he used his body, I was told by the ref to keep my mouth shut or he'd give me a technical foul."
River Hill, which lost its first two games this season, recovered to win 17 of its next 19 and capture its first Howard County championship.
"I told the guys I've never been more proud to be part of something," Steenberge said. "We didn't get intimidated and didn't back down."