May 26, 2018

4A Final Four preview: Gaithersburg’s ‘fearless’ freshmen ready for the big stage

Gaithersburg coach Jeff Holda (left) and Trojans' star freshman Jao Ituka (25) celebrate after capturing the school's first region title since 1998. Jake Keeley/Flickr.

The second 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: Jeff Holda

Record: 20-5

Five best wins of 2017-18: No. 12 Bethesda-CC by 19 (Dec. 15), Sherwood by 23 (Jan. 10), Seneca Valley by 18 (Jan. 31), No. 13 Springbrook by 9 (Feb. 13), No. 12 Bethesda-CC by 4 (March 3)

Championships: 1998

Final Four appearances: 1998, 1988, 1961, 1958

4A bracket outlook: Gaithersburg (20-4) vs. Perry Hall (19-6) on Thursday at 7 p.m. … Old Mill (21-4) vs. Bladensburg (14-12) on Thursday at 9 p.m. … (all games are at University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center)

Gaithersburg won the boys’ basketball state championship in five overtimes against Prince George’s County’s Oxon Hill all the way back in 1998. They haven’t been back to the state semifinals since.

Until this year.

The Trojans defeated the 4A West region’s top seed, the No. 12 Bethesda-Chevy Chase Barons, in the region final to claim their first region title since 1998.

Gaithersburg may be the youngest of the four teams remaining in the playoffs, with two freshmen in the starting lineup. Those two, however, aren’t average freshmen. They’re one and two on the team in scoring.

The first of the duo is Jao Ituka, who moved to the United States from Cameroon eight years ago. It wasn’t until sixth grade that he first picked up a basketball. Ituka, just 14-years-old, has quickly ascended to become one of Montgomery County’s brightest stars. Ituka leads Gaithersburg in scoring, averaging 17.8 points per game and is at his best driving to the basket. He’s a very physical guard that is difficult to stop when getting downhill.

Ituka’s freshman partner is Jordan Hawkins, who is the top shooter for the Trojans, and is second on the team in scoring at 12.6 points per game. He’s been overshadowed by Ituka, but Hawkins has been just as important for Gaithersburg’s turnaround from a year ago.

Despite being so young, the two have never shied away from the big moments, and they have always come to play in the most important games.

“They’re fearless,” Holda said of the freshmen. “Once the ball gets thrown up and we run up and down a few times, and we realize it’s just basketball, it’s not going to matter. It doesn’t matter who you put in front of us. Our guys are going to compete.”

The freshmen are buoyed by senior 6-2 guard Kevin Neal (12.6 points) and senior 6-1 guard Julio Tamakloe (7.7 points). Tamakloe was the leading scorer against B-CC. Neal and Tamakloe are third and fourth respectively in points per game on the team, and have provided leadership for the young team all season long.

Gaithersburg doesn’t have a ton of great shooters, and they don’t have much size. However, the roster is loaded with players like Ituka: Tough, strong, physical guards, who excel at driving to the basket. The Trojans have tended to start slow and comeback in the late stages of games, just as they did against B-CC.

“We’ve been in so many tight games and comebacks this year, that they never get frazzled,” Holda said. “It doesn’t matter that we have young guys. They just never get frazzled.”

They wear opponents down, and make the big plays in the big moments. While not a favorite to bring home the championship — playing against a Perry Hall team that boasts three Division I recruits, all of whom stand at 6-8 or taller, and won it all last year — Gaithersburg certainly has the talent to do it.

“The way we way play doesn’t really change,” Holda said. “It’s just knowing who their guys are and how we have to play them. The way that we play defensively and offensively, we’ve kinda played the same way all year. We just try to cause havoc and try to push the ball and play basketball the way it’s supposed to be played. We’re fun. …  … I can’t wait to watch them play. I’m so excited.”

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