By Brent Kennedy
River Hill coach Matt Graves stood clutching the Class 3A state championship trophy, following his team's 60-51 win over Bethesda- Chevy Chase in the finals, and acknowledged a three-word phrase he shared with his team before the playoffs began.
"Believe and achieve," said Graves, through a wide smile. "These kids believed we could get here, believed in me to put them in position and most importantly never stopped believing we could win."
By the time the final horn sounded against B-CC and sophomore Leron Eaddy had launched the basketball toward the Comcast Center rafters, River Hill had made believers out of everyone else.
Using an assortment of zone defenses and a methodical Princeton-style offense, the Hawks frustrated and confused a quicker and more athletic Mervo team in the semifinals, winning, 62-53. And then two days later, in front of an estimated 6,000 fans, managed to do the same thing against a taller and more experienced B-CC squad.
B-CC boasted a team of eight seniors and six players standing 6-foot-3 or taller, compared to only two of each on River Hill's roster. Stacking the deck even more, B-CC was in its second state final in three years, while River Hill was in its first final ever.
"I know hearing from a lot of people that we were the underdogs and they were going to just come out and dominate us," said senior Daniel Hostetler, who finished with 11 points in the final after scoring 20 in the semis. "Even people around school were talking about it. They were definitely tall, but we just hustled and boxed out our men."
The fundamentals proved to be the difference, as the Hawks out-rebounded the Barons, 30-28, and, just as importantly, continued their success at the foul line. After shooting 58 percent during the regular season from the stripe, River Hill was 24 for 30 (80 percent) in the final. Two days earlier in the semifinals, the Hawks had made 23 of 30.
River Hill's leading scorer all season, Tommy Brenton, led the charge in both contests. Brenton made 16 of his 20 free throw attempts in the semis and then set a state record by converting 19 of 20 in the finals.
"I thought last game (the semifinals) was the best game I'd ever shoot, but I proved myself wrong," said Brenton, who shot only 69 percent during the season.
It was a string of foul shots by Brenton early in the second quarter that swung the momentum in River Hill's favor. The Hawks trailed, 16-13, with five minutes left before halftime, when B-CC's Nate Koenig (14 points) picked up personal and technical fouls in succession.
Brenton, who finished with 28 points after dropping 30 on Mervo, stepped up and calmly hit all four free throws to give River Hill the lead, which it never surrendered.
River Hill stretched its lead to 27-20 at halftime and led by as many as 12 early in the fourth quarter. B-CC did manage to close its deficit to four, 51-47, with three minutes left in the game following Koenig's fourth 3-pointer, but never got closer thanks to the Hawks' clutch foul shooting.
"Our kids never hung their heads, never stopped fighting, but give credit to River Hill for making the most of every opportunity they got," B- CC coach Steve Thompson said. "They came in with a great game plan and they did what it takes to win. They found a way to answer every one of our runs."
River Hill also excelled at limiting the production of the Barons' 6- foot-8 senior center Maurice Pearson, who was coming off a career-high 26 points and 15 rebounds in the semifinals against previously undefeated Largo.
Fronted by Brenton and surrounded every time he touched the ball, Pearson managed only four shots and finished with just six points and four rebounds in the finals. Pearson's front-court mate, 6-foot-6 Jon Gregg (12 points against Largo), only scored four points.
"We stressed clogging up the lane," Graves said. "The key was, we made them an outside shooting team."
Aside from Brenton and Hostetler, River Hill also got a huge effort in the final from sophomore Michael Campanaro, who finished with 12 points and scored the Hawks' first six points of the game.
Zach Serleth and Eaddy also made important baskets in the second half, finishing with five and four points respectively.
"We're small, but all year we've believed that if we work together we can beat anyone," Brenton said. "We never changed our game plan, just kept doing the things that made us successful all season. We believed that this was possible and we went out and proved it."
E-mail Brent Kennedy at Brent Kennedy@patuxent.com