BALTIMORE — Rahim Ali is numb to the burdensome weight that looms over his role.
When Friday night’s game between No. 4 Lake Clifton and No. 10 Baltimor Poly was gridlocked at 37 apiece with one minute left in the third quarter, Ali, the 5-foot-10 freshman point guard, cut hard to the basket and finished a put-back at the front of the rim while absorbing heavy contact.
Ali even let out an animated fist pump, assuring it was his night.
The fearless put-back gave the Engineers a 39-37 lead and was two of Ali’s game-high 21 points on Friday as Poly put away Baltimore City foe Lake Clifton, 68-61.
“Pressure? I don’t feel any pressure,” Ali said. “I’ve been playing this game since I was 3 (years old).”
We've got a fun finish coming in Charm City. No. 10 Baltimore Poly takes a 41-39 lead over No. 4 Lake Clifton into the fourth. pic.twitter.com/hMGeoolRGL
— Kyle McFadden (@k_fadd) January 20, 2017
Tasked with steering one of the most talented high school basketball teams in the state of Maryland with the likes of Temple recruit De’Vondre Perry and Division I recruit Demetrius Mims, the frosh lead guard doesn’t succomb.
Ali scored five straight points to up Poly’s lead in the first quarter from 8-5 to 13-5, and then with 1:20 left in the first, he pulled up from the left wing for his second of two 3’s to extend Poly’s lead, 20-11.
“Rahim Ali is going to be a special basketball player in that Baltimore basketall tradition,” Poly head coach Sam Brand said. “It’s important for me to have trust with him, coaching him hard, getting him better every day. He’s getting better by the day.
Poly (9-6) led 22-13 at the end of the first quarter, in which they shot 8 of 13 and 4 of 6 from deep.
The Engineers went stagnant in the second after Lake Clifton switched from a 3-2 zone and into man-to-man defensively.
Poly only managed one basket in the second quarter (1 of 9 shooting) and their nine-point lead was trimmed to 28-23 at halftime.
Lake Clifton opened the second half with two quick buckets from Alphonso Barney (17 points) and Steven Parker to jump ahead, 29-28.
The lead changed hands six times in the third, before Ali’s put-back helped give Poly a 41-39 lead into the final quarter.
Soon after Lake Clifton brought the game to 41-all, Ali responded with two free throws at the six minute mark and a fast break layup off a Lakers’ missed jumper to push Poly ahead 45-41.
Lake Clifton did get to within two points on the following possession when Barney converted a put-back, but never held the lead since.
Perry (15 points and six rebounds) ensued with a clinical three-point play that gave Poly a firm threshold, 48-43, with 4:34 to go.
Perry then extended Poly’s lead to 55-51 and 57-51 with under 1:30 left on a hard layup and two free throws.
Ali, who also dished four assists, sank four free throws to extend Poly’s lead to 61-54 and 66-59 with under one minute left.
Friday night was the beginning of another Baltimore City title quest for Poly, who went undefeated in City play and captured the conference championship a year ago.
The 2015-16 playoffs, however, was a different story — losing to Woodlawn in the second round.
This year, Poly is more prepared. Perry and Mims (10 points, seven rebounds and three assists) are more seasoned, and the upset playoff loss lingers in the back of their minds.
Poly is also fresh off a grueling first month and a half of basketball, playing a nationally renowned schedule that includes D.C.’s H.D. Woodson (won by one), Baltimore private Mount St. Joseph (loss by six), No. 3 Perry Hall (loss by 23), Philadelphia’s Imhotep Charter (lost by 15), Brooklyn’s Bishop Laughlin (lost by six), Florida’s Sagemont (lost by 13) and Chicago’s Simeon, who is considered as a top-10 public school basketball program (loss by one).
“I trust my guys to compete with anybody,” Brand said. “This is to prepare us for the long haul of obtaining our ultimate goals.”
As soon as Ali walked into the basketball program at Poly, Brand had no question what role he would fulfill.
Brand walked back to the locker room on Friday night, after a pivotal intra-city win, with his left arm draped around his freshman star Ali and his right around senior leader Perry, one building block closer to capturing an elusive state championship.
“As a staff, we knew in preseason he was going to be our starting point guard,” Brand said. “He’s matured into his role. He’s a leader, a natural leader. And he loves the moment.”
Deshaun Mosley added 10 points for Poly.
Andre Rafus, who has narrowed his college list down to Georgetown, Kansas and TCU, was held to eight points.