The first 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.
OLD MILL PATRIOTS
Coach: Mike Francis, fourth season
Five best wins of 2017-18: Broadneck by 30 (Dec. 28), Southern by 3 (Jan. 3), Woodlawn by 4 (Jan. 12), Meade by 15 (Jan. 26), Annapolis by 11 (March 3)
Final Four appearances: 2010, 2006, 2005, 1992
4A bracket outlook: Old Mill (21-4) vs. Bladensburg (14-12) on Thursday at 9 p.m. … Perry Hall (19-6) vs. Gaithersburg (20-4) on Thursday at 7 p.m. (all games are at University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center)
Mike Francis stood in the red-colored lane on Old Mill High School’s basketball court with a mob of eyeballs fixed to his, not conducting a rigorous practice, but organizing his 14 giddy players who danced and howled in a single-file line. Or, at least the fourth-year coach tried to. It seemed just as challenging as coursing drills in practice.
After all, Old Mill had just captured its first region title since 2010 in the 76-65 win over rival Annapolis in the 4A North championship game, and it was time for the Patriots to climb the ladder and cut the nets.
Queen’s “We Are The Champions” blared atop the gym’s PA system and, once every Old Mill player and assistant clipped a piece of twine, Francis’ moment came. Before the fourth-year coach could even climb the ladder, those jubilant players of his drenched him with bottles of water. Francis laughed and hugged, and then stepped up the ladder to finally clip down the net. He slung it around his neck, grew teary-eyed and basked.
“It’s very fulfilling,” Francis said. “First time I’ve won one, me personally. … It’s sweet for me, but we still got work to do.”
Old Mill will now play Prince George’s County’s Bladensburg in the Class 4A semifinals this Thursday night at 9 p.m. at University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center.
Prior to this season, Francis’ teams went to the region finals twice. They left both trips empty. Last year, the Patriots started 18-0, ripping through Anne Arundel County before losing three of seven in a premature end that elusive Final Four berth.
Instead of stumbling in the crucial month of February, they’ve stumbled into March’s big dance and now sit two wins between the school’s first boys’ basketball state and Anne Arundel County’s second boys’ hoops title in the past 25 years (Meade, 2015).
“We felt like we had a chance to win it last year,” Francis said. “We just didn’t execute down the stretch like we did [in the 4A North title game].”
Francis recalled losing last year’s sectional final game against Meade because of back-to-back turnovers off inbound plays. When he watched the tape, he charted his Patriots the culprit of 16 points off designed inbound plays alone.
“If you take those special situations out, it’s a different game,” Francis said. “We honed in on that [against Annapolis] … and that’s the difference. We executed our inbounds plays and stopped theirs.”
Francis’ statement isn’t out of context. Saturday’s emotion-swinging victory encapsulates just how far Old Mill has come. The Patriots built an early 11-point lead, but Annapolis switched to a tricky 2-3 zone and suddenly stifled the hosts, who were also mangled in foul trouble. The Panthers took a 40-33 lead with 5:02 left in the third quarter, and if this was last year, that might’ve been the fork. But the Patriots didn’t buckle. Over the final 13:02, Old Mill held Annapolis to 6-for-16 from the floor while forcing seven turnovers.
The Patriots also suppressed Christian Jones’ dynamic presence, a Division I recruit for Annapolis. Jones had 18 points when the Panthers led by seven in the third quarter. He could only muster two free throws after that and later fouled out.
When asked what’s gotten them to this point, Francis said, “Defense. Being able to take thing away defensively. We told them coming out of the second half we were not going to let Christian [Jones] beat us and we were going to wait until we have to, and then double [team] him to get him off the ball.”
And because of that executed stretch in crunch time, Old Mill’s roster of eight juniors, a sophomore and just four seniors take a 16-game winning-streak into the Final Four.
The Patriots are led by high-energy, 5-foot-10 junior guard Avion Robinson, who erupted for 21 points in the fourth quarter alone on Saturday. Robinson himself has the skill package and brand to get Old Mill these monumental last two wins. Versatile wings and physical bigs are nice, but titles are won with playmaking guards. Robinson fits that mold.
Interview with the man of the day: Avion Robinson, who erupted for 21 points in the final frame to lead Old Mill past Annapolis. pic.twitter.com/kPczhfvW5c
— Kyle McFadden (@k_fadd) March 3, 2018
“He wants the big shot,” Francis said. “A lot of kids talk, but he wants the big shot. He wants to be that guy. He did it [Saturday]. … He lives for that moment.”
Junior 6-1 guard Mahzi Thames, a transfer from Meade, senior 6-6 wing Hollique Johnson and junior 6-2 guard Daevone Johnson are vital pieces on both ends of the floor as well. Francis’ personnel allows him to mix it up: Strict man-to-man, 2-3 zone with man-to-man principles, a diamond press and a variety of other options.
On Saturday, the third time was a charm for Francis. This week he’s hoping to ride that to glory.
“It’s something to experience,” Francis said. “I’m happy for the guys who have worked very hard to get to this point. We still have work to do.”