By Brent Kennedy
It's about as clichŽ as it gets, but defense wins championships. And as River Hill has shown during its three 3A East playoff games, few teams are able to play defense and control tempo better than the Hawks.
Building on the momentum of a 44-43 second-round win over Aberdeen, River Hill defeated Long Reach, 41-37, and then Severna Park, 48 -37, to win its first regional championship last week and advance to the state semifinals.
"All year we've been at our best when we keep the game at our pace and keep the score in the 40s. When it's low scoring like that, the kids look up at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter and believe we're going to win even if we may be losing at the time," said coach Matt Graves, whose team is a perfect 17-0 this season when holding its opponent to less than 50 points.
"Before every season you strive to get to this point, and these kids buying into the system and working extremely hard has made it a reality."
The Hawks (21-5) are the only Howard County team still standing, as county champion Atholton (22-4) saw its dreams of a regional championship fall just short against Fairmont Heights in the 2A South Region final.
In River Hill's game against Long Reach, a team it split games with during the regular season, the Hawks faced their largest deficit of the playoffs; down nine points with four minutes left in the third quarter. A pair of threes by Keith Richardson (14 points) keyed that third quarter run for the Lightning, who had been ahead by two points at halftime.
But River Hill's 3-point shooting, which was its Achilles heel early on (1 for 16 to start the game), ignited a comeback. Zach Serleth started the run with a three from the right corner and River Hill hit three more treys during a seven-minute stretch that gave the Hawks their first lead since the second quarter, 36-35, with 2: 33 remaining.
"Against (Long Reach's) zone there were shots from the perimeter all game, we just weren't hitting," said Serleth, who finished with eight points. "We just focused on defense and had faith that our shots would eventually fall. If we hadn't been playing good defense, those threes we made in the second half wouldn't have meant anything."
While outside shooting helped get the lead, it was clutch foul shooting that maintained it. River Hill went 17-18 from the line in the second half, including a perfect 8-8 effort down the stretch by leading scorer Tommy Brenton (11 points).
Two days later against Severna Park, River Hill's foul shooting was again the key. The Hawks, who shot only 58 percent from the line as a team during the regular season and went 8 for 15 against Aberdeen, followed their performance against Long Reach with a 17-21 effort against the Falcons.
Brenton was again the leader, hitting 13 of 15 of his foul shots and finishing with a game- high 19 points.
"As funny as it sounds, we have not been working that much on free throw shooting," Graves said. "I've been trying to take the pressure off them in practice so when they get to the line in games they don't have those negative thoughts going through their heads. A lot of free throw shooting is mental."
River Hill led the entire way against Severna Park, which entered the game winning 12 of its previous 13 contests, and never saw its lead dip below five points in the second half. Dan Hostetler was key to maintaining the Hawks' lead, backing up his six points and nine rebounds against Long Reach, with 12 points against the Falcons.
River Hill advances now to face Mervo, the North Region champ, in the 3A state semifinals, Thursday, March 8 at the Comcast Center in College Park.
Class 2A South
The first two minutes of both halves turned out to be the difference between winning and losing for Atholton in its regional final, as the Raiders allowed Fairmont Heights to roll off five straight points in the first half and eight straight in the second.
Atholton managed to trim the first deficit to one point at halftime, 32-31, but never fully recovered from the Hornets' second run and ended up losing, 75-69.
"You always want to come out at the beginning of the game, start fast and put the other team on their heels a little bit. They were on top of that," Atholton coach Jim Albert said. "They came out making shots and we were forced to try and answer that initial intensity."
Atholton did manage to answer Fairmont Heights' attack, which featured seven 3-pointers in the first half, by pounding the ball inside to its forwards.
Torey Fassett (22 points, 12 rebounds) and Sam Permutt (20, nine) thrived when the Raiders got themselves into a half- court setting, making lay-ups or getting to the foul line. The problem for much of the night, though, was that the Hornets' pressing defense created a predominately transition game.
"Obviously, their pressure defense was very good and they forced us into several turnovers, but we did feel we had an advantage inside when we were able to set things up," Albert said. "I give a lot of credit to our guys for not getting frustrated and for fighting until the very end. We were down nine or 10 points several times in the second half, but our guys always answered and that says a lot about their character."
The Raiders had trailed, 59-49, with seven minutes left in the game, but Atholton went on a 11-4 run over the next five minutes to cut the lead to three. Steve Lombardozzi (15 points) hit one of his two second-half threes during that stretch.
That was as close as the Raiders would come, though, as Fairmont Heights' point guard Andre Whitmire put the finishing touches on a huge night. Whitmire came in averaging only six points a game, but scored 17 of his season-high 21 points in the second half and hit four straight foul shots down the stretch to seal the win.
"He's usually so unselfish and is happy to set everyone else up. But he saw us not shooting the ball well, settling for too many jump shots, so he took it upon himself to take over," Fairmont Heights coach George Wake said of Whitmire, who also dished out nine assists.
Fairmont Heights had advanced to the region final by downing Oakland Mills, 82-50. The Scorpions fell into a big hole early in the game, trailing, 45-19, at halftime, and never recovered. Senior Kevin Cureton led the way for Oakland Mills with 15 points, while leading scorer, David Pearman, was held to seven.
In the other half of the bracket, Atholton had advanced to the regional final by holding off upset-minded Howard, 69-64. The Lions hit 10 3-pointers on the game, including five by Tyler Curley (20 points), and had a shot to win with three seconds left. However, the shot from beyond the arc by Matt Harvey (17 points) hit front rim and fell into the waiting hands of Fassett (27 points).
Maryland Christian Schools
Chapelgate Christian entered the Maryland Christian Schools post-season tournament as the top seed in Division II, but following an opening round victory over Calvary Christian, the Yellowjackets lost, 73 -55, to Lanham Christian in the semifinals.
Freshman Aaron McCall had solid outings in both of the team's games, with 15 points and eight assists against Calvary and 16 points against Lanham. In the 65-39 win over Calvary, Scott Robinson had one of his better games of the season with nine points and 17 rebounds.
Chapelgate finished the season with a 10-18 overall record and placed seventh in the MIAA C Conference.
E-mail Brent Kennedy at Brent Kennedy@patuxent.com