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LJ Owens repeats as Boys Basketball Player of the Year

The only thing more impressive than LJ Owens’ numbers is the consistency with which he puts them up. The only thing more impressive than his consistency on the court is his dependability and leadership off it.

Owens, a four-year starter under coach VJ Keith at Severn, was named the Capital Gazette Communications boys basketball Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, becoming the second straight player to earn back-to-back awards, following in the footsteps of Meade’s Tristan Easton. Owens improved slightly on most every statistic, inching up to 23.6 points a game, 7.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists for the Admirals, who went 25-6 and finished as runners-up in the MIAA B Conference. The team posted win streaks of 14 and 10, and won both the early season AACS Eagle Classic Tournament, as well as the Surf N’ Slam San Diego Classic Tournament over the holiday break.

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Despite falling short to Gerstell Academy in the conference championship, Owens’ tenure at Severn was an unqualified success.

“LJ is so special; his basketball skill is off the charts,” Keith said. “As a person, he is just so unique. He never complained — he always did what was asked. The culture he created at Severn even helped me daily. He showed how hard you have to work in practice, and how giving you need to be, for our team to be successful.”

After falling short in the semifinals the last two seasons, expectations were high coming into the 2017-18 campaign. Along with Owens, the Admirals returned Jermaine Hall, AJ Burch and Mo Terry from a 19-10 squad. Owens eliminated any peripheral distractions when he committed to the College of William & Mary out of the Colonial Athletic Association in October. He had already worked hard in the offseason to improve upon areas — leadership and defense — he felt were necessary to push his team to a championship.

“I improved a lot in terms of leading my team in different ways,” Owens said. “Coming into this season, it is just like every other year — we wanted to come out and play hard. We had already learned how to stick together and that would be key. We knew we were going into some tough opposing gyms, and it takes a lot of mental strength when you go into all these arenas and they try and bring you down.

“I needed to stay focused on my game, and not give in,’’ Owens added. “I needed to be a leader on the floor, an extension of the coach. In the last year, my on-the-ball defense had improved considerably, as well as my awareness on the court.”

All those improvements were put to the test immediately, as Keith scheduled MIAA A Conference foes Mount St. Joseph and Boys’ Latin to open the season. The Admirals lost both games, but earned whatever confidence they may still have needed to go on a roll early in the season. And a roll is indeed what Severn went on, winning its next 14 games, including those two tournament titles, not losing again until the calendar crossed over to 2018. Owens said the team’s trip out to California, which included three straight wins over Washington state high schools, was crucial.

“It was definitely key,” Owens said. “In California, it was cool, we had some tough games, but we also did some sightseeing and team-bonding. We just started clicking.”

That was not the case shortly after the new year, when Severn lost three of four in its only down stretch of the season. The Admirals dropped last-second contests to conference foes St. Paul’s and Indian Creek, and suffered their worst loss of the season, a 14-point setback at home to Gerstell.

“We were getting too relaxed, and I don’t think we were playing as hard as we could have,” Owens said. “Coach VJ always tells us that it is going to be a roller ride throughout the season, and we just needed to endure.”

As is often the case, a rivalry game at St. Mary’s may have sparked the re-emergence of the team that was needed. The Admirals trailed by a dozen early in the second quarter before Owens and his teammates responded. Owens had 16 of his game-high 24 in the second half to push his team to a 70-58 victory. Severn lost to Indian Creek in its next outing, but did not lose for the rest of the regular season. The Admirals closed especially strong at the end, defeating Gerstell on the road, St. John’s Catholic Prep, Indian Creek and St. Mary’s by 22 points or more.

“With all his success and his humility, you hardly ever feel him scoring as much as he does, but you would look up and see that he had 24 or 25 points,” Keith said. “You appreciate LJ’s consistency when you know how hard this game can be daily. More importantly, he was always team-first. He would do anything for his teammates.”

Owens achieved a notable milestone near the end of the regular season when he scored his 2,000th point in a 78-35 win over Chapelgate Christian in early February. Owens scored 732 points this season and finished with what is believed to be an Anne Arundel County record of 2,166 points.

“That is a great stat to look at, again, to measure LJ’s consistency over the years, but it only begins to explain his greatness as a player,” Keith said.

Owens and the Admirals took the rubber match with St. Paul's in the conference semifinals before falling to Gerstell at Harford Community College. Owens had 19 points and 13 rebounds in his final game in a Severn uniform. However, Owens’ experience at the private, coeducational college preparatory day school will stick with him for the rest of his life.

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“It was a pretty unique experience,” Owens said. “I mean, my middle school (Bates) was much bigger than my high school, but as soon as you got used to everything, it was great. Everyone was great. And, we had not been to a championship game in a while, so we feel we did something special at Severn.”

Owens will run the usual all-star game gauntlet in the coming weeks, and then the focus will shift to making some history at William & Mary as well. The Tribe finished the 2017-18 regular season at 19-12 overall and 11-7 in the CAA, losing to eventual conference tournament champion Charleston in the semifinals. The school has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament, falling one point short in the 2014 conference tournament final, and has gone 0-3 in National Invitation Tournament (NIT) games. They are close. Owens could be a piece in taking the team over the hump.

“As a basketball player, it is a dream to play in college and see your name up there on Selection Sunday,” Owens said. “That has always been my dream. I am heading down there this summer and focusing on my strength and all-around game coming in.”

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