Homing in on repeat: Meade primed for run at title repeat

Bob Hough
Contact Reporterbhough@capgaznews.com

When Meade boys basketball coach Pete Corriero showed up for Monday's game with Glen Burnie, he had what looked like a wresting title belt.

That was Corriero's way of having fun with fellow coach and friend, Mike Rudd, of Glen Burnie. That game determined the top seed in the Class 4A East Region playoffs, which means home games as long as the team kept winning. While the Mustangs did get the win Monday night to earn the top spot in the region, they're looking for more hardware than a title belt.

"If we're fortunate enough to be in the region final, we don't want to make that trip down to North Point," Corriero said, referring to the Eagles, who are the top seed in Section II of the region. "Bascially, you play to be home throughout the playoffs. That was one of the goals we talked about. We play very well at home."

Meade (19-3) enters the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak since suffering its only regular-season county loss in two years when Camari Wilkerson's late 3-pointer lifted Old Mill to a victory over Meade on Jan. 15. Following a six-point victory over Chesapeake after a 16-day layoff, the Mustangs rolled through their next eight opponents before hanging on for a 77-73 victory over the Gophers on Monday that clinched the top seed in the region.

The Mustangs have a first-round bye and will open the playoffs on Monday against the winner of Friday's North County-Arundel section quarterfinal.

After winning the Class 4A state title last year, then losing eight seniors from that team, the Mustangs were the top team in the county again this year. Early-season losses to Glenelg Country of the MIAA A Conference and perennial state title contender Eleanor Roosevelt left the Mustangs with as many losses through eight games as they had all of last season. As the calendar turned to 2016 and county play for most of the rest of the season, the Mustangs have lost just once and are outscoring their opponents by an average 23 points per game. The only loss came to the Patriots when Meade held an eight-point lead in the final minutes, but watched the Patriots rally for the win. Meade avenged that loss by beating Old Mill by 17 last Friday.

"These guys are a pretty humble bunch, and they don't get too far ahead of themselves," Corriero said. "That starts with Tristan (Easton) and his leadership, and the rest of the guys buy into that."

Easton, the Mustangs' leading scorer last year and the Capital Gazette Player of the Year, is leading the team again at 18.2 points a game to go with four rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.3 steals a game. He had two of his better games in the last week when the Mustangs knocked off Old Mill and Glen Burnie on the road to clinch the top spot.

"We're just focusing in and getting everything up to speed. Just making sure everything is good for the playoffs," said Easton, following the team's practice on Thursday. "We're working hard every time and not letting anyone get an edge on us. We're just making sure to focus on us and winning."

Like Easton, who has increased his points per game by nearly two, others have done the same to help make up for the graduation of Bruce Spruell and his 15.6 points a game last season.

Keith Duffin, who averaged 4.4 points a game last year, has upped his production to 11 a game and also is averaging six rebounds a game. He's been in double figures in rebounds seven times, including three of the last five games.

"It feels great. That's what we've played for all season," said Duffin, when asked about the importance of home games in the playoffs. "From the first day of practice, we've been planning on playing North Point here. We have a good crowd, so we know if we play here we'll have some more energy."

Jerrel Elder is averaging 10 points and four rebounds a game. He's averaged 13 points in the Mustangs' last four wins, including a season-high 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting in a victory over Southern on Feb. 18. He averaged four points a game last season as a junior.

Josh Qualls, who averaged just 6.6 points a game last season but led the Mustangs with 16 points and three rebounds in the victory over Bethesda-Chevy Chase in the state final, is averaging nine points, four rebounds and three assists a game this year. He had five rebounds and five assists in Monday's win over Glen Burnie.

"Last year was great. Making states as a junior just made me work harder this year," Qualls said. "Some people have been telling us we're not going to go to states this year, so that's just motivating us right now. We're just trying to prove people wrong and do what we can to get to states again this year."

As the defending state champions, the perception might have been teams would come gunning for the Mustangs. While that might have been the case, the team hasn't backed down. Outside of the three losses, just four of their wins have been by fewer than 15 points. One of those was a 10-point victory over Arundel.

"Believe me, we're gunning for everyone, too," Corriero said. "We're not sitting here hoping we make it back. We're going to give each game the respect it deserves and do our best to take it one game at a time."

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