Francis Scott Key coach Terry Brant calls the regular season a chance for his team to learn. The postseason, he said, is the final exam.
In last night's Class 2A West Region quarterfinals, the fourth-seeded Eagles passed their first test, taking the lead on Jordan Ricketts' driving layup with six seconds left and keeping it when Chuckie Black get a piece of Taj Murphy's three-point attempt at the buzzer in a 58-56 win over Hammond.
A year after making a surprise run to the regional finals, the Eagles (12-11), who haven't lost more than two straight or won more than three in a row all season, are now one step from equaling that feat.
"We've been late starters," Ricketts said. "It takes us awhile to get going, but we've been playing pretty well."
Key advances to play the winner of last night's game between Centennial and North Hagerstown in tomorrow's regional semifinals.
But first the Eagles had to survive a Hammond squad that appeared their equal in every way.
After building a 35-27 lead with a 7-0 run to start the second half, Key saw its lead evaporate, as Michael Traber's three-pointer at the end of the third quarter cut it to four. Another Traber three put the Bears up 46-45 with 6:09 left.
From there, the lead changed hands four times.
"We got the feeling that whoever got the ball last was going to win," said Key forward Chris Bassler, who led all scorers with 20.
Trailing 50-48, the Bears - minus defensive stalwart Tye Murphy, who broke his right hand in practice Monday - regained control with six straight points. After Key regained the lead, Hammond (11-12) made one final run, tying the game at 56 on a 15-footer and one of two foul shots by Conor Lewellyn.
Still tied with time winding down, Ricketts took a pass 20 feet out on the right side, drove hard toward the basket and scored with an underhanded layup to give his team a 58-56 lead.
Murphy took the inbounds pass and raced down the sideline before attempting a 19-footer. Black, however, was ready.
"He took that shot once before and I hit it, but I got a foul. I knew I could get it again," Black said. "We just knew it was going to come down to defense. Defense was going to win the game for us."
Hammond, led by Josh Wheeler's 16 points, was held to 32 percent shooting. Only 22 offensive rebounds kept the Bears in or near the lead.
"We played well in spurts; they played well for the whole game," Hammond coach Mark Murray said. "I thought we took a lot of bad shots. In the second half, I think our first six or seven possessions were one pass and a shot."
For Key, it was another case of rising to the occasion.
"We just like to play big games," Bassler said. "There are some games we show up and some we don't. This was just one of those games where we showed up and played."