It was defense that brought the Damascus High School boys’ basketball team back from a nine-point deficit during the middle of the first half of Friday’s Class 3A West Region first round playoff game at Albert Einstein.
And it was also defense that helped save the Swarmin’ Hornets’ 46-43 victory over the Titans, as Damascus forward Stephon Jacob stole the ball from Einstein senior forward Joe Bradshaw with three seconds left in regulation. Bradshaw, who led his team with 16 points and six rebounds, hit the front rim on a long 3-point jumper from the right wing five seconds earlier, a shot which would have given his team a one-point lead. Damascus forward Matthew Torrence hit one of two free throws with 4.2 seconds to give the Hornets its final cushion.
“We said before the game in the locker room, that defense is what was going to win this game for us,” said Damascus senior guard Connor Burke. “Defense has been carrying us throughout [the season]. We’ve been holding teams that usually score 80 points per game to just 40. So defense has been huge for us.”
Einstein coach Rich Porac praised the Hornets defensive effort against his squad, which contains two freshmen who play major minutes.
“You know kids beat themselves up, especially when it comes down to a last second shot that they think they should have made, but that last play is not what decided this game,” said Porac, whose team finished the season at 6-17. “You couldn’t ask for a better look [on Bradshaw’s 3-point attempt], but we had 20 turnovers [for the entire game]. And turnovers kill you.
“The kids beat themselves with all of those turnovers. We started panicking. Not making excuses because Damascus is a good team, they’ve won 11 games this season and we knew it was going to come down to a possession or two. With basketball, it’s not the last possession, that’s what people remember. But it’s the 19 turnovers beforehand that makes the difference.”
Burke, along with backcourt teammates Jhames Nagonda and Joseph Daniel, turned up their teams’ defensive effort to hold the Titans to just three points for the entire third quarter. Their scrappiness enabled Damascus to take its first lead early in the fourth quarter at 34-32 on a 3-pointer from Daniel — a lead they would only lose once for the rest of the contest. Along with his tight chest-to-chest defense, Burke scored a game-high 20 points.
“This environment was one of the best I have ever played in,” said Burke. “We prepared for Einstein and we executed our game plan to stop Bradshaw and [Abe] Kamara. They were the biggest threats. Without them [dominating] the game, we were able hold [Einstein].”
Damascus (11-13) moves onto the second round, where they will travel to Section II No. 1 seed Rockville for a scheduled 7 p.m. tip Monday.
“This game was just too exciting,” said Damascus coach Butch Marshall with a laugh. “When we switched to full court man [late in the first half], it seemed to energize us. We started to get some turnovers and we made some easy baskets to get us going. They were so big that we had to speed the game up [defensively] and thankfully, that worked for us.”
Jacob added 12 points and six rebounds for the winners. Freshman guard J.D. Guerrero added eight points and four assists for the Titans.
Damascus 46, Albert Einstein 43
Damascus 9 14 6 17 — 46
Einstein 17 12 3 11 — 43
Damascus — Connor Burke 20, Stephon Jacob 11, Matthew Torrence 3, Ben Michel 4, Jhames Ngonda 5, Derek Gibson 2.
Albert Einstein — Joe Bradshaw 16, J.D. Guerrero 8, Michael Habte 3, Abe Kamara 5, Gil Reynolds 2, Mike McMillan 5, Johnson Kilgore 4.