In a special season of firsts, the Perry Hall boys basketball team was able to make the most important one happen Saturday night at Xfinity Center.
The No. 1 Gators needed overtime to fend off pesky Quince Orchard, getting a clutch performance from junior Laquill Hardnett late and a perfect shooting night from senior James Rider to claim a thrilling 59-56 win that produced the program's first Class 4A state championship.
Perry Hall becomes the first Baltimore County team to win a state championship in the biggest public schools classification since Towson won the crown in 1963 when it was Class AA.
Trailing by two points in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, Hardnett sent the game to overtime with a runner with four seconds left.
He put the game away with four straight free throws to offset the smaller Cougars' never-quit ways. Hardnett's fourth make came with eight seconds left in extra time before supersub Tyler Holley, who has brought instant energy off the bench all season, broke up a Quince Orchard pass to end the suspense.
Rider scored a team-high 18 points, going 8-for-8 from the field and scoring the Gators' first five points in overtime to help key the win.
Never a basketball power before last season, when they reached their first state tournament, the Gators made sure to build on that success this season.
This season, the Gators captured their first Baltimore County championship with a 70-57 win over Milford Mill on Feb. 21, reached No. 1 in The Baltimore Sun's top 15 poll for first time and then moved a step further than last season with a 74-63 win over Annapolis in Thursday's state semifinal.
On Saturday night, they closed out the season as state champions with a 26-2 mark.
"We were kidding in that last year we just wanted to be on the map and now this year we have the No. 1 ranking and we're state champs, so it's been an amazing journey for these guys and the program," Perry Hall coach George Panageotou said.
Keeping tight hold of the team's championship plaque during the postgame news conference, Hardnett talked about his poise at the free-throw line that secured the win.
"I just cleared my head and didn't think about nothing but a win: Just knock them down — that's all I was thinking," he said.
As for the celebration pile that came shortly after, he added, "They almost killed me at the bottom of the pile. I couldn't breathe or nothing. It was crazy. I loved it, though."
Quince Orchard, which got a 22-point performance from senior guard Matt Kelly, ended its season with a 24-3 mark.
The Gators had a 46-39 lead when Rider scored with just under six minutes to play, but the Cougars rallied. They got two baskets from Kelly before Daniel Dorsey hit a free throw and a basket with 2:51 to tie the score at 46.
With 28 seconds left, Kelly brought the Cougars all the way back, giving them their first lead at 48-46.
Hardnett got room in the lane and finished a short jumper to send the game to overtime.
Rider hit a basket and then a 3-pointer to get the Gators ahead early in overtime. Holley then hit a basket for a 55-50 lead with 43 seconds left. But two 3-pointers kept the Cougars close with Hardnett's four free throws needed to secure the win.
"It hasn't kicked in yet and I feel like I still have practice coming on Monday," Rider said. "I feel like I finished everything now and I don't have anything left to give now. Like before, last year we lost in the semis and the year before we got put out in the first round [of the region playoffs] against Catonsville, so now I guess I'm fulfilled.
Out of sorts and mostly settling for outside shots to trail 8-6 after the first quarter, the Gators made an assertive effort to attack the basket in the second quarter and their fortunes changed.
Holley helped get the Gators on track, taking an inside pass from Anthony Higgs to tie the game at 8 on their opening possession. From there, they made six more inside baskets before halftime — Holley converted a three-point play and finished with eight in the quarter — to take a 24-17 advantage at the break.
Class 4A final
(at College Park)
1 Perry Hall 59, Quince Orchard 56
PH – Higgs 9, Hardnett 14, Green 4, Rider 18, Holley 14.
Totals: 24 10-23 59
QO – Kelly 22, Fierstein 11, Dorsey 8, Crews 6, Czworka 3, Faraone 2, Feidelman 4.
Totals: 21 6-9 56
Half: PH, 24-17
Half: PH, 24-17