BALTIMORE — As the champions traded haymakers, crowd-jolting 3-pointers and emphatic slams, and with no side able to mount a lead larger than five points through three quarters, Poly coach Sam Brand huddled his team together benchside during the third quarter intermission. Despite being down three points heading into the remaining eight minutes, Brand felt he had No. 7 Perry Hall on the ropes and his message was simple, yet moving: “This game is our’s to close,” he told his players.
On top of an extra bench player or two at his disposal, Brand and the Engineers had La’Quill Hardnett and Tyler Holley within one foul of ejection, both three-year varsity starters with four fouls apiece.
To that point, the lead changed hands 14 times, but once the huddle broke and the fourth quarter fired up, Poly made sure the 15th lead change stuck for good. The No. 8 Engineers busted things open with a decisive run and forced Hardnett and Holley to foul out in the process, and in the end, outlasted their Baltimore foe, 72-63, in a Clash of the Champions.
Getting ready to rock and roll in Baltimore as No. 7 Perry Hall — last season's 4A state champion — and No. 8 Poly — last season's 3A state champion — collide. Estimated tip-off is 5:50 p.m. 🏆🏀 pic.twitter.com/vO349Dvf0w
— Kyle McFadden (@k_fadd) December 13, 2017
Led by senior guard Demetrius Mims (29 points, nine rebounds and four steals), Poly started the final quarter on a 9-0 run to take a 58-52 lead and kept it rolling by upping the run to 17-4 and lead to 66-56 with 2:06 left in regulation.
“Our strength is in our numbers,” Brand said. “Demetrius is unbelievable. … We felt like we were the deeper team and I think in the fourth quarter our execution and our depth and our experience shined through.”
Poly shot 47.3 percent for the game (26-for-55) and 38.9 percent from deep (7-for-18). Perry Hall, meanwhile, shot 42.6 percent overall (23-for-54) and 16.7 percent from deep (3-for-18), including an 0-for-7 mark from behind the arc in the second half.
Mims, who will play for Long Beach State next season, eclipsed the 1,000-point milestone Wednesday and upstarted the put-away stretch with an emphatic put-back slam on the Engineers’ opening possession of the fourth quarter.
Before Perry Hall could register its first bucket of the fourth — going miss, turnover, turnover on its first three possessions — Poly built a six-point lead. Cleveland Horton gave Poly a lead it wouldn’t lose, 53-52, with a reverse lay-in and sophomore point guard Rahim Ali (nine points, seven assists) followed suit with a galvanizing 3-ball and steal and score, which pushed the Engineers’ lead to 58-52.
Hardnett halted the drought at 4:53 with a floater, pulling the Gators within four, but fouled out 20 seconds later when Mims pushed the pace and attacked the rim where the 6-foot-9 forward stationed in a 3-2 zone.
Perry Hall missed its following four field goals and Horton put Poly up by 10 with a 3-pointer in the corner.
“Execution down the stretch was big for us,” Brand said. “I thought we ran our stuff. When they changed defense, we didn’t miss a beat.
“Leadership, when it comes to Demetrius, now being his turn as a senior, and Rahim having a full year under his belt and now being a sophomore leader, he showed more composure. Demetrius showed more composure. They showed they learned a lot from our experience. I’m super proud of them.”
After losing MSA Player of the Year, De’Vondre Perry, who charged the Engineers to their first state title last season and now playing for Temple, Mims has presumed the role of go-to-guy and locker room leader.
“I knew coming into my senior year, I had to step up and be that guy, but I still couldn’t be that guy if my teammates didn’t trust me,” Mims said. “I knew this time would come soon. I’ve been working in the gym everyday with my guys, and we’re ready to show out this year.”
The 6-5 shooting guard is also operating more fluidly and comfortably this season. Over the summer, he flew to Long Beach State University and spent some time with players from its basketball program. Mims picked up on new techniques and mannerisms, and it’s showing early on.
“I learned how to shoot quicker and shoot higher,” Mims said. “I’ve been working on it. It’s a product of my work.”
Poly also welcomed sophomore 6-8 forward Justin Lewis, a 4-star transfer from Calvert Hall. Lewis threw down four emphatic dunks on Tuesday night and finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
— Kyle McFadden (@k_fadd) December 13, 2017
Poly led at the end of the first quarter, 19-16, and at halftime, 37-36. Last year, Perry Hall thumped Poly, 83-60, at home and two years ago, topped the Engineers on a buzzer-beater.
The Baltimore Sun pegged Perry Hall as the top team in the Baltimore area — public or private — and our poll had the Gators one spot better than the Engineers. But even through it all, Brand knew this outcome would end differently.
“We got pounced, but I knew this year was going to be different, though,” he said. “Enough of our guys were there to go through that. We had some social media stuff going. Our guys were going nuts all day today. I knew we were going to get up for this game.”
As for Perry Hall, it’ll surrender its top spot in the public school rankings, but won’t be affected too much when it comes to playoff seeding. Sophomore, 6-8 forward Anthony Walker paced the Gators with a team-high 17 points, 14 of which came in the second half. Hardnett finished with 14 points and was held to just one basket in the second half. Anthony Higgs, an Ole Miss signee, was capped to nine points total and nursed a hand injury for most of the night. Perry Hall coach George Panageotou said Higgs “couldn’t get into the flow of the game.”
Because of foul trouble and Higgs’ injury and periodic sub-ins and sub-outs, Perry Hall fell into the trap Poly hoped for, and could never perform on all cylinders.
“We had to play defense differently than we normally do. We couldn’t play as aggressive. I just told the other guys, Poly executed their offense amazing. They deserve to win,” Panageotou said. “No matter what look I gave them, they executed. … We tried to battle, but we got beat tonight.
“The only thing this does is make us better. Our schedule is top-loaded; we play really good teams early. We have to progress as the season moves on and a game like this only helps us moving forward.”