COLLEGE PARK — All season Dunbar has been through the ringer. The fabled team has suffered through injuries, defections, experienced players not trying out and even personal strife. The Poets weren’t expected to have as solid of a season as they eventually would. It all just speaks to the character of seniors such as Da’Shawn Philip and Zephaniah Esguerra, who have helped Dunbar reach the state Final Four for the first time since 2013.
“I’m just proud of my guys, mainly the seniors” Dunbar coach Cyrus Jones Sr. said. “I just wanted the win mainly for the guys to get their opportunity to become state champions. Hopefully, this can motivate them to go on in life and do other great things as well.”
On Saturday afternoon at University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center, No. 3 Dunbar grabbed their 16th state championship in program history with the 59-48 win over No. 11 Fairmont Heights. No other performance was as vital to bringing the Poets back the promised land as Philip’s 27 points, on 11-19 shooting and 13 rebounds in a well-rounded game.
All afternoon Philip took what the defense was giving him: pull-ups in rhythm and a healthy heaping of putbacks.
“I just took the fundamentals,” Philip said. “They were just giving me the pull-up so I took it and my teammates just put me in position to score.”
The Poets put on a defensive clinic against a Hornets squad that averaged 70 points per game. It all started with sophomore Jamal West, a 6-foot-5 forward for Dunbar. The athletic big man grabbed 14 boards in the game, seven offensive while holding down the paint — blocking three shots and altering several others. The Poets pride themselves on being a versatile defensive team, running multiple schemes in order to confound the defending state champions Fairmont Heights.
After giving up 15 points in the opening quarter, the Poets locked in and only allowed 11 points in the second and third quarter’s combined. In those two decisive periods, the Hornets shot just 33 percent overall, hitting nine field goal attempts, and one 3-pointer in the time frame. Using their press defense to speed up the Hornets squad, as well as sacrificing their bodies multiple times in order to draw charges, Dunbar forced Fairmont Heights into 24 turnovers, which the Poets converted into 17 points.
“We just took our time, put pressure on the ball,” Philip said. “They couldn’t handle it.”
“We do take a lot of pride in our defense,” West added. “When it’s that time to turn up our defense, and our defense, we’re going to turn it up.”
The Poets actually trailed for much of the first half, holding a brief 2-0 lead before the Hornets stung back to grab a 15-10 lead heading into quarter number two. Philip and the Poets answered subsequently, sparking a 10-0 run with a corner triple, and capped by a Malik McCormick steal and layup that created a 24-18 lead late in the second quarter.
The decisive run proved to be all the Poets needed, as the Hornets never got any closer than six points in the fourth quarter when Darren Lucas scored on a layup to make it 30-24. The Poets then went on a 12-4 run spanning the end of the third and start of the fourth, putting the game out of reach at 42-28. The biggest lead of the night came Esguerra canned a 3-pointer in the right corner to give Dunbar a decisive 51-36 lead.
With Lake Clifton, Poly and Perry Hall facing North Caroline, Milford Mill and Bladensburg, respectively, there is a chance all four Baltimore-based high schools can walk away with a championship. Dunbar was able to set it off right for Charm City, which prioritizes private school basketball. The chance to be apart of history with four state champs is a point of pride for the representing quartet.
“It’s just toughness,” Jones Sr. said. “Night in and night out we go against the team after team that will pressure you, challenge you physically and mentally, and you have to overcome that.”