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After slow start, Annapolis boys basketball opens the floodgates on South River

Annapolis Panthers Craig Pratt (23) attempts three point basket against North County Knights earlier this season. Pratt scored 23 points against South River on Friday night.
Annapolis Panthers Craig Pratt (23) attempts three point basket against North County Knights earlier this season. Pratt scored 23 points against South River on Friday night. (Terrance Williams/Capital Gazette)

Nothing made sense about the team that just accepted its plaque for securing the regular season county title falling apart at the feet of a squad dragged down by injuries and a losing record.

So Annapolis made sense of it.

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The Panthers willed their way into a rout in Edgewater, drubbing South River, 92-62, on the quiet directive from senior forward Craig Pratt, who grounded his team with 23 points. The victory helped sustain Annapolis’ top seed in the 4A East region come playoffs in a week, ensuring a home-field advantage.

The Panthers (18-3 overall, 14-1 county) are thoroughly unused to slow starts, but when they stumbled to South River early, it cast shades of their first and only conference loss to the Seahawks earlier this year.

The fight took place late in the fourth quarter and is under further investigation by the North County High School administration.

“We normally have very fast starts. Credit to South River, they came up fired up and they always do,” Panthers coach Dan Smalley said. “It threw us off a little bit.”

Seconds in, South River’s Cash Herndon stripped control right out of Annapolis’ hands.

The freshman’s stolen goods fell into senior David Foust’s hands, who made good on it, locking in the first Seahawks advantage of the game.

But Herndon had only laid out his appetizer. As the Panthers’ leading scorer evened the game from the foul line, Herndon (12 points) settled in at the perimeter and struck. Then, Foust did the same.

That was something the Annapolis seniors, with their No. 1 playoff seed on the line, simply couldn’t swallow. Malik Carrol (12 points) flipped the assist to Demari Turner that sparked Annapolis’ 6-0 run, one that would rein in the Seahawks — for the moment.

It was as if Herndon dropped a smoke bomb every time a Panther guard approached him at the arc; they just couldn’t see him. The freshman poured in two more 3-pointers before Annapolis could reply, helping sustain a statement-making 18-16 home margin at the first buzzer.

In that shadow period for the Panthers, it was important at least one person not lose perspective. Pratt doesn’t bring a lot of drama to his game, his face barely showing emotion from start to end. His two 3-pointers — one just before the second quarter and one that would cap off a game-defining Annapolis scoring run to come before halftime — carried the theatric flair for him.

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“That’s our anchor. When things are not going well, he steps up and makes big shots,” Smalley said. “His influence can’t be underestimated.”

After two consecutive layups from the biggest figure on the floor, Seahawks senior Reagan Karr, the Panthers decided to open the floodgates while shutting down their hosts.

Beginning with junior Demauri Johnson’s putback, the Panthers embarked on 12-straight points without a South River response.

Senior guard Mike Washington converted his own strip for two to tie the game at 22. By the end of the run, the Panthers led by six.

“We had to bring more energy,” Pratt said. “Defense-wise, we gave them a lot of points first quarter. We had to tighten up on defense. Second quarter, we got more stops, starting forcing turnovers.”

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All of this was done with Foust (15 points) off the floor, making the lanky senior’s absence ache in South River’s core like starvation.

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And when South River coach Darren Hall decided to deploy Foust again, his presence immediately made an impact. The Seahawks very nearly took an eraser to the Panthers’ run, with a seven-straight point streak in which Foust booked two trips to the foul line for five points.

Smalley had been concerned over his boys slipping into foul trouble for exactly this reason. He knew every chance South River had to nibble away at an Annapolis advantage from the stripe, they’d take.

That was why Annapolis made frequent subs, to limiting fouls from piling up on frustrated players and therefore holding South River to just 12 points off the stripe.

Still, down just six, 37-31, South River didn’t walk out for halftime break thinking they’d just torpedoed their chances of winning. They thought just the opposite.

“We felt pretty good about the first half as a whole,” Hall said. “Then, we’ve struggled all year long coming out of the locker room for the first couple minutes of the third quarter, and it got us again tonight. A six-point lead turned into a 12-point lead pretty quickly.

“Playing catch-up against those guys, they can make you pay for it.”

After Turner and Carrol made a basket each, Pratt drained another from the perimeter — opening a 10-point Annapolis margin.

“It’s more about transactions, right? Going back and forth and adding it all up at the end,” Smalley said. “They had a bad run, and we had a really good run. It was more about us just keep pushing the ball.”

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But Annapolis had a little bit of a big problem.

Try as they might, the Panthers guards couldn’t figure out how to slow down the looming tower that was Karr (17 points) shoehorning through their defenses. The senior big posted nine points by midway through the third quarter.

Smalley eyed Karr, who had just returned to play from injury, warily pregame. Karr noticeably outsized every member of Smalley’s deep bench, the kind of thing that typically poses an issue for an Annapolis team of modest height.

But then, like rain at the end of a long drought, a blessing arrived.

Karr walked off the floor with his fourth foul pinned to him, and the Panthers could go back to focusing on themselves.

“He’s a big factor on the floor and he was playing really well,” Smalley said. “Offensively, he was really getting to us. For us, it was more about pushing the ball and getting in.”

With the Panthers offense free to breathe a little more, South River’s guards were paper against water. There wasn’t anything they could do to slow Annapolis’ shooters down.

Another eight-point unchallenged run put distance between the Panthers and a Seahawks offense that couldn’t settle the ball.

“Annapolis, they score in so many different ways,” Hall said. “They can score in the perimeter, they got Malik down low who’s a biggest threat as anybody in the county. Score on the block. We didn’t take care of the basketball for a stretch there, we didn’t shoot the ball as well. We missed some easy putbacks I felt could have maybe stopped some of their runs.”

As ever when foul calls start mounting, Annapolis’ depth came like an extra set of batteries as Panthers starters needed to recharge. As Smalley called off his main group in a wave to sit and watch what kind of calls were being made, some players who typically warm the bench got to pull the spotlight their way.

In a game that would already matter so much to the Panthers, watching their second, third-string shooters produce an additional seven points was an added treat.

“It was fun to see the guys that don’t get a lot of time get buckets,” Pratt said.

Junior Abnel Alvarez’s basket secured it, a 30-point gap that seemed so far from a first quarter in which no Panther could be confident a win was going to even happen.

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That kind of win was emblematic of how Pratt intends to burn his final game before the postseason.

“We got to finish strong, going to the playoffs,” he said. “Every team will come for us.”

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