COLLEGE PARK — The mild-mannered George Panageotou waved both arms up and down, signaling the Perry Hall faithful on the other side of the court to crank up the decibels. Perry Hall’s seven-point fourth quarter lead vanished in a blink of an eye, fueling the boisterous Quince Orchard student section in the palpable Saturday night atmosphere inside Xfinity Center.
On Thursday, Quince Orchard did the improbable when they sank No. 1 Wise in the semifinals, and two nights later, were on track to duplicate the result as their undersized frontline slugged it out with the towering Gators from the outskirts of Baltimore.
“We go up by seven, pumping up the crowd, you think you’re good, then bang, bang, and it’s like, we can’t shake these guys,” Panageotou said. “No matter what, we couldn’t shake them.”
Quince Orchard used a nine-point swing in the final minutes of regulation to jump ahead by two with 20 seconds to go. On the ensuing possession, 6-foot-9 forward La’Quill Hardnett, standing five inches taller than anyone else on Quince Orchard, weaved through traffic to drop the game-tying floater before time expired.
After a palpitating four-minute overtime, Perry Hall players cleared the bench and bum-rushed toward halfcourt to form a celebratory dogpile after staving off No. 13 Quince Orchard in the MPSSAA Class 4A state title game, 59-56, to capture their first ever boys basketball championship.
“It doesn’t feel real,” Perry Hall senior guard James Rider said. “I still feel like we have practice on Monday.”
The two-game surge by Montgomery County’s Quince Orchard caught most people by surprise. They upended undefeated Wise in the semifinals after being nearly 20-point underdogs, and then heading into Saturday night against Perry Hall, a team that plays four players 6-4 or taller and two players 6-8 or taller, many thought the Gators’ size advantage would prove no match.
But behind 5-10 guard Matt Kelly (22 points, three rebounds) and 6-4 forward Johnny Fierstein (11 points, eight rebounds, three assist), the Cougars weathered the substantial disadvantage and came a couple possessions shy of triumphantly winning it all.
“What they did against the undefeated Wise team was incredible,” Panageotou said. “I was scared. Very, very scared. … I stayed up until 3 [a.m.] watching [film]. They are amazing. They were amazing again tonight. I was hoping they wouldn’t have two games like that. … They gave us everything they had.”
Kelly bombed two rangy 3-pointers in the opening three minutes to push Quince Orchard ahead, 6-2, and help give the Cougars an 8-6 edge going into the second quarter.
Hardnett gave Perry Hall their first lead of the night 58 seconds into the second quarter, 10-8, on a fadeaway jumper in the paint, and after Mitch Czworka ensued with a 3 to put the Cougars ahead by one, the Gators put together an 8-2 run centered around two Rider baskets to take an 18-13 lead with just over two minutes until halftime.
Anthony Higgs’ putback in the closing seconds of the second quarter gave Perry Hall a 24-17 lead at the break, ending an abysmal first half shooting display by Quince Orchard, who shot 23 percent on 6-for-26 shooting against the Gators’ suffocating 3-2 zone.
“It’s really frustrating,” Fierstein said on watching his teams opening looks not falling through the bottom of the net in the first half. “We spend a lot of time in practice working on fundamentals and trying to make shots. It just didn’t fall. So, I mean, it’s really frustrating. We practice that everyday, but it’s just how the ball rolls.”
Darrell Green extended Perry Hall’s lead to 26-17 on the opening possession of the second half, before Kelly triggered a 15-5 Quince Orchard run with a 3 that put the Cougars ahead 32-31 midway through the third quarter. Kelly hit his fourth and final 3 on the last bucket during the 10-point swing.
The lead changed hands three more times in the final four minutes of the third quarter when Perry Hall held a 40-37 advantage going to the final frame.
Rider’s jumper and Higgs’ emphatic one-handed slam to open the fourth quarter quickly extended the Gators’ lead to 44-37. Quince Orchard then clawed back with an 11-2 run to take a 48-46 lead with 28 seconds left in regulation. Kelly scored eight of the Cougars’ 11 points during the electrifying run, including a left-handed scoop-lay-in around the towering wingspan of Hardnett that made it 46-41 and two clutch free throws that put them ahead by two with under 30 seconds left.
“I mean, Matt Kelly, 22 points, really? I’m throwing every guy I can at him to try and slow him down,” Panageotou said of Kelly’s heroics. “If you look at that boy, you’re like, ‘are you kidding me?’ I mean, that kid, what year is he? He’s unbelievable.”
Perry Hall called two timeouts to set-up Hardnett’s game-trying drive to the rim. And even after Hardnett tied the game at 48-all with five seconds left, Quince Orchard mishandled the ensuing inbounds pass around Perry Hall’s own 3-point line, and it dribbled into the hands of Higgs, who lofted a desperation heave at the buzzer that clanked off the back iron.
The Gators opened up the four-minute on a 7-2 run to take a 55-50 lead, but Colin Crews’ 3 from the right wing brought Quince Orchard within two with 22 seconds left in overtime.
Hardnett countered with two free throws to make it 57-53 with 18 seconds remaining before Fierstein brought Quince Orchard within one when he clutched a pull-up 3 that banked off the glass with 10 seconds to go.
Hardnett got fouled on the ensuing inbounds, sinking both free throws in the bonus to make it 59-56 with 8.4 seconds left. Quince Orchard’s last opportunity went by the wayside as a turnover at midcourt exiled the chance of double overtime.
Perry Hall’s state title on Saturday marked the first time a Baltimore County school won the boys basketball championship in the largest classification since 1963. Last year, Perry Hall lost to the eventual state champions, Eleanor Roosevelt, in the semifinals.
“Last year, we came in here, and lost, but made a vow to come back and win it,” said Hardnett, who finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.
Two years ago, Perry Hall endured painful growing pains to go 8-15, when Hardnett, Higgs and Tyler Holley played on varsity as freshman and Rider as a sophomore.
“We struggled, and we weren’t a team at all,” Panageotou said. “That’s why we lost so many games. To bring those guys up as sophomores, to turn into a team last year, and continue the journey. We won the regional championship for the first time in school history last year. This year, we went undefeated in our division, won the Baltimore County championship, the second region championship and now state championship. It’s just amazing.”
Perry Hall shot 56 percent for the game (24-for-43), including 67 percent (14-for-21) in the second half and in overtime. Higgs pitched in with nine points, six rebounds and three assists. Quince Orchard shot 38 percent overall (21-for-55), but 52 percent overall and 42 percent from deep (5-for-12) in the second half and in overtime (15-for-29).
Rider, one of eight seniors getting a championship farewell, capped his high school career fittingly, finishing with a team-high 18 points on a perfect 8-for-8 shooting.
“It’s something, as a group, we knew we could accomplish,” he said. “We’ve always been looked at as underdogs. Now, I guess we’ve made our own name.”