BURTONSVILLE — All summer long, the Paint Branch boys’ basketball team trained with the burning reality of what it takes to win a state title. The Panthers went down to the wire with eventual Class 4A state champion Perry Hall in the Elite Eight last season, but couldn’t close the deal, and peeled out of Baltimore in bitterness that one slipped away.
Coach Chris Bohlen graduated a host of impact players, but as the months wore on, the loss fueled the program with a sense of purpose.
“I think they remember the taste in their mouth when we had to leave Perry Hall,” Bohlen said. “I think it’s definitely a sense of unfinished business.”
Returners, like junior point guard Richard Dudley III, commanded workout sessions while new pieces materialized. Though Panthers aren’t gaining the respect early on that they still remain in the thicket in the 4A North, the team won its second straight with the 71-61 win over Richard Montgomery on Tuesday night.
Dudley led the Panthers with 26 points and spearheaded a defense that forced 21 turnovers and held Richard Montgomery to 41.5 percent shooting (22-for-53). Paint Branch, meanwhile, shot 39.3 percent overall (24-for-61) and 21.4 percent (3-for-14) from deep.
“That’s our goal, to get back to that spot,” Dudley said of the loss at Perry Hall in February. “That’s what we’re playing for basically. … We have to work way harder. Lot’s of key players left.”
Five seniors, two of them captains, graduated from the Elite Eight team a season ago. Sam Rafidi, their starting shooting guard, transferred to Springbrook. That left only six returners for this winter.
Mishi Etuaful, a recent transfer from Glenelg Country, has filled the void as a 6-2 guard, and produced 15 points on Tuesday night. Xavier Roades is a 6-4 small forward with disruptive length and Kevin Yomba is a 6-5 power forward that can also use his size to make it difficult on opposing offenses. Both chipped in with six points.
But what the fairly new personnel did best is turn those turnovers into 21 points, either on the break or in the halfcourt. Bohlen noticed on film Richard Montgomery had issues with Kennedy’s full-court press and 1-3-1 zone defense and figured he can have the same success with some kind of ball-pressure tactic. The reasoning worked.
Bohlen implemented a stingy 1-2-2 trapping press, and it threw off the Rockets, who went long stretches without a basket and struggled to finish quarters.
“Sometimes we need a little bit of a jump start, and if pressing is going to give us that, we’re definitely going to start relying on it more,” Bohlen said.
The only leads Richard Montgomery held all night was 2-1 in the opening seconds and 26-25 in the late stages of the first half. Paint Branch took a 13-5 lead in the first quarter after a pair of Dudley free throws, but the Rockets pulled to within 17-16 moments later when Daryn Alexander (13 points) converted a three-point play and two free throws on the following possession.
Alexander put Richard Montgomery ahead for one last time when he hit a hop-step, fadeaway jumper on the right baseline with under-four minutes until the half. The Panthers responded with an 8-0 run, capped by a Roades layup in transition off a Rocket turnover. Paint Branch led 33-28 at the break and upped their lead to 38-28 in the first minute of the second half when Dudley splashed a 3-pointer and swiped a steal to go coast-to-coast.
“He’s grown leaps and bounds,” Bohlen said of Dudley. “His maturity is off the charts. … I’ve been pleased with his growth and maturity. It’s just going to continue.”
Paint Branch held its largest lead at 50-37 in the third quarter, when Etuaful dropped a 3-ball, which was the seventh make on 10 shot attempts for Paint Branch in the second half. Richard Montgomery wouldn’t go away, however, and reeled off a 9-0 run spanning from the final minute of the third quarter to the opening minute of the fourth quarter to pull to 53-48. The Rockets remained within five points with under-four minutes left, but turned it over five times over nine possessions to fall into a 67-56 deficit. By then, the game was on ice.
Paint Branch will now travel to Blake on Friday night, which nearly upset No. 25 Springbrook, 96-93. Bohlen will move forward in an optimistic state, extolling his team’s gumption and cohesiveness.
“Granted the season is early, but this is the first game we’ve had when we really put together four quarters of effort,” Bohlen said. “It wasn’t always pretty, but we really put together four quarters of effort. As the execution increases, it’s been a great group to work with. They’re coachable, they listen. They work hard, they get after it in practice. I’m excited about our potential.”