Three seasons ago, Jaylin Albury and the rest of Northeast basketball couldn’t beat a single county team.
On Saturday night, the Eagles brought down the winningest team in the county.
Northeast will bring its first-ever county championship back to Pasadena, since the modern format of an actual county championship game began, after blowing the roof off of Annapolis, 64-42.
“We’ve been on a mission ever since day one. We knew we were the underdogs. We knew people were overlooking us,” junior Trent McNeill said. “When we last played Annapolis, we weren’t as healthy as we could have been. We knew coming into this game, if everybody’s locked in, we have this.”
Tears filled Albury’s eyes as he walked to accept his medal.
Since Northeast High’s opening in 1962, the Eagles boys basketball team has never beaten Annapolis. But in the last few days especially, Northeast coach Roger O’Dea could see the fire in his players’ hearts as real as if it were standing in front of him. He could see it how hard they played in a meaningless game on Friday, when the bench played half the game and won by 30, when Mason “Katnip” Kanipe dropped his first dunk.
“And every game I tell these kids when we play Annapolis, if we beat them, they can shave my head,” O’Dea said. “I didn’t tell them that this game, because I knew we would beat them.”
Before even their first preseason practice, they’d all looked around the Northeast gymnasium walls, where numerous sports’ county, regional and state accomplishments were immortalized for all the public to see.
But wanting to put boys basketball up there too was only skimming the surface for these Eagles. For Albury, who rained down 22 points, he had dedicated this season to his father, Chris, who had guided Albury from childhood to AAU to where he is now.
For senior Trent McNeill, who set the conditions of the beatdown in the first quarter from paint and perimeter, he’d carried over his devotion from last season, to his friend Brad Cropper, “Sunshine,” who’d lost his battle with cancer in 2018.
“This season, knowing the potential we had, I knew we could take it all the way. I wrote his name on all of my basketball shoes to dedicate him,” McNeill said. “I know he’s with me tonight.”
O’Dea couldn’t bear to see how Northeast basketball had crumbled since its halcyon days.
Skye Bilger from South River tied for fifth in 100 backstroke and was the top finisher among county swimmers at the 4A/3A Swimming Championships on Saturday.
“Me being an alumni and leaving and coaching in the city and seeing what was going on with the school and the program, it feels awful great to me,” O’Dea said, “because that was my mission when I stepped down from one great program (Edmondson) and turn this into a great program.”
In every moment, but especially Saturday night, O’Dea felt the presence of his father, Patrick, whom O’Dea carried a card with his name upon it every day.
All of those hopes and devotions flowed through Northeast as the Eagles quickly unraveled any expectations Annapolis had for this game.
After a quick five Panthers points, the Eagles dropped nine-straight and then another set of five purely from McNeill, who mimicked Annapolis’ contribution with a 3-pointer and layup of his own.
But a 14-8 deficit wasn’t a big enough lesson to the Panthers. What Dan Smalley had worried of his team, who had won 10-straight against county teams and only suffered one county loss, long ago, was already coming true.
“It’s time to hit the reset button. There was something about, ‘Hey, we’re just going to roll, we’re just going to turn it up, we’re going to blow people out.’ Problem is, we’re playing against a good team,” Smalley said.
When Annapolis’ Dimauri Johnson lifted in his layup to bring the score within one, that would be the last time Northeast would let them come that close again.
McNeill drilled in another triple and then handed Albury the hammer. If Albury wasn’t scoring, he was on the assist, or making the steal that turned into another Darrell Sheppard basket – which punched out the first double-digit Northeast lead.
At first, it seemed like Annapolis had all the answers, as Johnson, Kemari Taylor and Craig Pratt fired back-to- back-to-back 3-pointers.
And yet, up by two at halftime, 28-26, the Eagles were ready to unload. In every dive for the loose ball, every screech to the basket on transition, every bit of boxing out to win on the glass was that will to fight philosophy that the Eagles players who’d suffered that four-win season had bought into.
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“We think we can press them, but I didn’t want to give them any open space, they’re very athletic. Didn’t want to let them get to the rim easy,” O’Dea said. “We wanted to turn it into a shooting competition. We’re gonna make them hit the outside shots on us, as long as we rebound it, we figured we could slow them down that way.”
The Panthers’ shooters were swallowed in the deep of Northeast’s zone. Other than a Pratt putback – which would be the last Annapolis field goal until late in the fourth quarter – the Panthers shot 1-for-12 on field goals during most of the third quarter.
Likewise, the Eagles defense, led by Richard Stowe III, smothered Annapolis’ bigs. Only Malik Carrol could even break into double digits, finishing with 12 points.
“If a kid hits 13 step-back 3s, that’s one thing. But what we did tonight is we gave them confidence, and each time they drove, they got more and more confidence,” Smalley said. “…We had bad shooting. It’s not like we didn’t have good looks.”
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