The fourth installment in a series of the 16 region-winning Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association boys’ basketball teams ahead of this week’s state tournament at the Xfinity Center.
Coach: Antonio Williams, fifth season (61-44)
Five best wins of 2017-18: Bowie by 3 (Dec. 19), Northwestern by 17 (Jan. 9), DuVal by 13 (Jan. 13), Parkdale by 26 (Feb. 22), No. 5 Eleanor Roosevelt by 2 (March 3)
Championships: 1973, 1960
Final Four appearances: 1979, 1978, 1973, 1972, 1963, 1962, 1960
4A bracket outlook: Bladensburg (14-12) vs. Old Mill (21-4) on Thursday at 9 p.m. … Gaithersburg (20-4) vs. Perry Hall (19-6) on Thursday at 7 p.m. … (all games are at University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center)
It was an early-January afternoon and, instead of holding practice, Bladensburg coach Antonio Williams felt moved to try a different route. His team just got pummeled on the road — an 18-point beat-down to Baltimore private school Pallotti — and dropped to 2-6 on the season.
“Guys had started doubting themselves, each other,” Williams said in a phone interview on Sunday. “We had a heart-to-heart. … We had this big talk.”
Williams rolled racks of bench-side chairs from the Bladensburg gym and into a vacant classroom, not far down the hall, and placed seats sparingly throughout the room. Under each chair, Williams and character coach Eric Hood placed colorful notecards with motivational tidbits taped on them, from Bible passages to inspiring quotes, each one of disparity. Williams and the coaching staff then ushered his players into the room and told them to sit anywhere.
“They sat down, and I said, ‘Wherever you sat at this time,’” Williams said, “‘you walked by faith. You sat in that seat. … On the bottom of your seat, there’s a card. I want you to get your card, and that’s what you’re gonna talk about.’ ”
Every player obliged, sparking meaningful conversation. But the underlying message was a Bible passage, the bowtie of a powerful exercise that would help right the ship – 2 Corinthians 5:7, which says, “For we live by faith, not by sight.”
Practices grew more intimate. They consistently prayed, and still pray, together as a team. It became a mainstay in daily game-planning; so much that they ordered custom shirts with the verse printed on the front. The team’s anthem, so to speak, is Drake’s “God’s plan.” And now, these resurrected Mustangs have won 12 of 18 and find themselves in the Final Four for the first time since 1979. On Saturday, it pulled a dramatic upset at No. 5 Eleanor Roosevelt, an 83-81 win to claim the 4A South region title. On Thursday at 9 p.m. at University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center, they’ll play Old Mill with a shot for the program’s first title in 45 years.
“Our players had a lot of questions,” Williams said. “They’d question the refs, whether if it’s a bad call or a good call … and I keep telling them, preparation, when you’re prepared to go to war, you’re fine. I use this example all the time:
‘You know there’s a God, right?’
‘Have you ever seen him?’
“That’s the example. You’re walking by faith that it’s going to happen. So when the coaches give you direction to do this, it might sound awkward to you, but you [need to] believe in it. Once you believe in it, you’ll see what happens. … Those guys believe. It’s a true thing. Walking by faith is what we believe in forever. Our kids, when it’s getting tough, walk by faith.”
Going into Saturday’s region championship, Bladensburg (14-12) carried an 0-7 record against ranked teams in local media polls. In the first quarter, it trailed by nine and things looked bleak. Williams burned a timeout.
“The kids then start telling each other, ‘C’mon, we have to walk by faith, not by sight,’ ” Williams recalled. “That’s rewarding, that they’re actually saying that now.”
Bladensburg went on a run that put them up 11, but Eleanor Roosevelt chipped away and drew within two points with 7.3 seconds remaining. Flashback to the 2016 4A North region title game and the Mustangs were up two at Eleanor Roosevelt in the final seconds of overtime.
“Ironically enough,” Williams said, “it was 7.3 seconds on the clock, the same time on the clock two years ago.”
But unlike the game on Saturday, a clock malfunction marred Bladensburg’s chance of winning. Once the Mustangs scored to take a 49-47 lead, a video recording of the sequence provided to The Washington Post showed the clock then stopped at 7.6 seconds momentarily, re-started briefly and paused again at 7.3 seconds following Bladensburg’s field goal.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Naji Marshall, now starring for Xavier, was able to send the game into a second overtime with an extra time at its disposal on a put-back as the buzzer sounded. Bladensburg eventually lost, 59-54. Williams said an Eleanor Roosevelt employee ran the scoreboard clock, and his assistants and several fans noticed the malfunction immediately.
This time around, Eleanor Roosevelt’s attempt to tie with 7.3 seconds left ricocheted off the rim and fell harmlessly to the hardwood. Bladensburg star forward Daniel Oladapo, who played in that exact game two years ago, and others then formed a mosh pit on the other end of the floor.
— Sentinel Sports (@Sports_PGS) March 3, 2018
“For kids like Daniel, who were on that team two years ago, I’m so happy they got this moment,” Williams said.
In his senior season, the 6-foot-7 Oladapo is averaging 24 points on 58 percent shooting, 11 rebounds and two assists per game for the Mustangs, who are two wins away from what seemed unfeasible two months ago. Senior 6-6 forward Tyriq McAdoo (12 points on 49 percent shooting, nine rebounds), senior 6-0 guard Tyshaun Walker (13 points on 39 percent shooting, five rebounds, three assists) and senior 6-0 guard Joshua Williamson (seven points on 43 percent shooting), three rebounds solidify a senior-heavy roster (10 of 14 players are seniors).
A lot of that has to do with the public school basketball cycle, but it’s also the byproduct of Bladensburg’s demographic. Williams said 17 kids tried out for his program, whereas nearby Prince George’s County schools had 40 to 50 kids. Bladensburg is also the culprit of players transferring to other programs, neighboring public’s who lure kids away or join private powerhouses like DeMatha. Before the year began, starting point guard Sherwyn Devonish transferred to rival Wise and led them to a 19-4 record at 22.2 points per game.
Since day one, Williams has been about loyalty. The fifth-year coach is a 1997 graduate of Bladensburg, and when he took the position in 2013, his first priority was to keep the connection between alumni, current and future players alive and thriving. Over the years, he’s had alumni pour into the program, especially members of the 1973 state title team.
— Sentinel Sports (@Sports_PGS) March 3, 2018
On Saturday during the region finale, alumni sat behind the Mustangs’ bench with the 1973 state title trophy in hand, a reminder of the legacy in place and the bridge between past and present. When Bladensburg finally halted a 39-year spell, Williams hoisted that trophy in the air. This week, Williams plans to have alumni speak after every practice. He’ll share some more stories from the Bible, too. But that one verse will always carry some extra meaning: “For we live by faith, not by sight.”
“Always believe, you know? Always believe,” Oladapo said. “Never lose faith of what your goal is.”