The Howard County boys basketball league has probably never been so evenly matched from top to bottom.
Until yesterday, however, No. 14 Centennial had established itself as the team to beat by going undefeated in its first six games.
Atholton, a preseason favorite that struggled to a 3-3 start, brought the Eagles down to earth by defeating them, 58-43, at Atholton.
The Raiders (4-3 overall, 4-3 league) set a goal of holding Centennial (6-1, 6-1) under 50 points.
"Our defense and our intensity won this game for us," said Atholton point guard Jimmy McQuilkin, who scored a team-high 11 points and had six steals. "The league is so even this year that any time we don't come out with our A game we can lose."
Atholton, leading almost the entire game, shot 43 percent (23-for-53) from the field, including seven three-point baskets. Centennial shot 30 percent (17-for-57).
"We don't have a kid on the team who can't shoot," said Raiders coach Jim Albert. "I don't know who will win the county title, but there's not a bad team out there and there's plenty of basketball left to play."
Albert said that he had three sick frontcourt players, Andrew Zavage, Brandon Boy and Aras Vaitkus, and that he wasn't sure whether they'd be in school or how many minutes he'd get from them.
But Zavage, who started his first game after rolling an ankle in a scrimmage, scored nine points and had seven rebounds, Boy scored five points and had seven rebounds despite being hampered by foul trouble. And Vaitkus scored six points.
"Zavage showed great effort," said McQuilkin. "This was a great win but we can't rest. I love playing in front of a lot of fans like we had tonight, especially when the Centennial fans showed up in face paint and capes."
He thought that Atholton's 2-1-2 zone defense, unfamiliar to Centennial, created some confusion for the Eagles in the first half.
Albert singled out McQuilkin for special praise.
"He's as tough as they come," Albert said. "Most of what he does doesn't show up in the box score, but he's a big part of the picture when we win."