Dunbar cranks up defense, rolls to record 16th state boys basketball championship

For The Baltimore Sun

For most high school basketball players, success means lighting up scoreboards with gaudy offensive numbers. For No. 6 Dunbar, however, there's nothing more satisfying than thoroughly frustrating an opponent with suffocating defense.

That's just what the Poets did Saturday in their 59-48 win over Fairmont Heights in the Class 1A state final at Xfinity Center. Trailing by five after the first quarter, Dunbar ramped up its defensive intensity and held the Hornets, ranked No. 10 by The Washington Post, to 11 points over the next two quarters, keeping the defending state champions to a season low in scoring.

“To hold them in the 40s, which we've done all season, for the most part, it's a tribute to these guys and how hard they work," Dunbar coach Cyrus Jones Sr. said. "It's really been the key to helping us win all season.”

“We take a lot of pride in our defense," forward Jamal West Jr. said. "When it's that time when we need to turn up our defense and energy, we're going to turn it up.”

All-Metro senior guard Da’Shawn Phillip had a game-high 27 points to go along with 13 rebounds, and West, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, added 15 points and 14 rebounds, as Dunbar (26-3) claimed its record 16th state title. It was the Poets’ first state title since 2013.

On a day when the Poets shot just 40.7 percent from the field, defense made the difference.

Despite playing with a six-man rotation for most of the game, Dunbar seldom relented on the defensive end, forcing 24 turnovers and holding Fairmont Heights to 39.2 percent shooting from the floor — including just four of 20 during the middle two quarters. They did it by pressuring the ball and taking the fast-breaking Hornets out of their comfort zone, forcing them into a half-court game.

“We just tried to switch things up to make them feel uncomfortable, and get them to do things that they're not used to doing," Jones said. "That was our focus. We knew they always wanted to attack the basket. They wanted to pressure our defense and try to score as much as they could in transition, and we just wanted to make them beat us in a half-court set.”

Trailing 18-14, Dunbar took control with a 10-0 run, started when Phillip made a 3-pointer and capped when Malik McCormick (10 points) scored on a driving layup to give the Poets a 24-18 lead.

Then, leading by two early in the third, Dunbar held the Hornets to one field goal over more than five minutes, embarking on a 10-2 run — including eight points by Phillip – to build a 10-point lead.

“I just took what they gave me," Phillip said. "They were giving me the pull-up side, and my teammates just put me in position to score.”

Down by double digits and unable to mount consistent offense, Fairmont Heights (20-9) took several rushed or ill-advised shots.

“At times, we were a little rushed and not as poised as we generally are," Hornets coach Charlie Henry said. "A lot of that is a tribute to what Dunbar did. They played really aggressively, and ultimately they controlled the defensive boards."

Guard Darren Lucas-White scored 19 to lead Fairmont Heights, and Yearlarndo Reed II added 11 points and nine rebounds.

The result was satisfying for more than just one reason for Dunbar, which had only one bench player with significant playing time in forward Shaun Tolbert. The Poets struggled with numbers all season after losing some players to transfers and other reasons.

“Not having key guys come out, or even try out, that we were expecting, losing players you counted on the year before and expected to come back, having guys in your rotation at the beginning of the season who you lost because of injury … it just was an up-and-down year," Jones said. "We fought through all that adversity. … We found a way. We hung in there together and this is the reward.”

FH – Lucas-White 19, Quigley 5, Craven 2, Benjamin 4, Reed 11, Norman 2, Montgomery 4, Reynolds 1. Totals: 20 5-9 48.

D – Esguerra 3, McCormick 10, Philip 27, Ayers 1, West 15, Tolbert 2, Miller 1. Totals: 22 13-23 59. Half: Dunbar, 24-20.

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