As two-time defending Class 3A state champions, the Poly boys basketball team has put itself in a position where it’s mostly focused on itself and not so much the opponent.
Play hard, execute the plan, and a win is expected to follow.
That was evident in Thursday’s state semifinal against No. 13 C. Milton Wright, as the No. 2 Engineers pushed the pace, pressured on defense and attacked the basket to move within one victory of becoming the first program to win three straight Class 3A titles.
All-Metro forward Justin Lewis led the way with 23 points and point guard Rahim Ali added 13 points, seven assists and five steals as Poly claimed a 72-54 win over the Mustangs at Xfinity Center.
Poly improved to 21-5 and will take on Reservoir, a 51-47 winner over Thomas Johnson in Thursday’s other semifinal, at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s like what Coach [Sam] Brand said, we feel like we’re the best team here, so it doesn’t matter what the other team does,” Ali said. “As long as we come out and execute our game plan we feel like we’re going to win the game.”
After the Mustangs (20-6) opened with the game’s first two baskets to take a 4-0 lead in the opening minute, Brand called timeout and reinforced the plan for his Engineers: force the pace and impose their will on defense.
They did just that with the next 13 points, which began with with an alley-oop dunk by Lewis from a pass by Brandon Murray, followed by a 3-pointer from Raymond English for a 13-4 advantage at the 2:13 mark of the first quarter.
Lewis dominated the second quarter with nine points as the Engineers led 34-20 at the half and never let their lead slip under double digits the rest of the way. Despite hitting only 27 percent of their 3-point attempts (6-for-22) and getting outrebounded 41-26, the Engineers forced 30 turnovers.
“What we talked about in the locker room after the game was it was nowhere near our best basketball,” Brand said. “But I think these guys did a great job of executing the plan and what we said was that if we did that – even if we didn’t play our best – we thought we could win. And that’s what happened, so I’m real happy about that.”
C. Milton Wright, which got 16 points and eight rebounds from Quincy Haughton, was making its third state tournament in five years with the program’s only championship coming in 2016. Unlike the first two teams that made it to Xfinity Center, these Mustangs were more of a continued work in progress with some difficult stretches that turned into valuable learning tools as they navigated through the North Region behind a staunch defense that limited opponents to 50 points a game.
C. Milton Wright coach Jon Stefanides opened the press conference with kudos to the Engineers.
“They’re as good as everyone says, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.
He also praised his team’s season-long resilience.
“We had some ugly games, but the kids understood it’s a process. [They] learned throughout the year to take advantage of what we had and I think the biggest thing we had was heart.”
For Poly, Murray also played well with 14 points, six rebounds, five steals and three assists. The Mustangs got 12 points from Jalen Jackson with Corey Patterson finishing with 11.
CMW – Haughton 16, Stiemke 2, Jackson 12, Hopkins 5, Patterson 11, Kutcher 1, Gallant 2, Sigler 5. Totals: 17 17-26 54
Poly – Lewis 23, Ali 13, Murray 14, Walker 7, Wallace 2, English 9, Massenburg 2, Allison 2. Totals: 28 8-16 72
Half: P, 34-20