Col. Zadok Magruder High School boys basketball coach Dan Harwood asked senior forward Justin Witmer how many times he has dunked this season.
“Uh,” Witmer said.
“Don't uh,” Harwood playfully snapped. “Don't say that.”
“Six,” Witmer said sheepishly.
“He knows exactly how many he has,” Harwood said. “He's got six. Six. We hear about it every day.”
Witmer dunked in the fourth quarter en route to 17 points and 10 rebounds, leading defending state champion Magruder to a 62-50 win over Baltimore Polytechnic Institute on Thursday and into the Class 4A state final.
At 8 p.m. Saturday in College Park, Magruder will face Eleanor Roosevelt, which pushed Magruder until the final moments of last season's state final and went 25-1 this year to win the 4A South Region.
“We're going to be the underdogs for both of them, which will be nice for a nice change,” Harwood said.
Magruder (24-2) has won by 22, 14, 17 and now 12 points this postseason thanks to a game it led since scoring its first points. The Colonels last lost in January, and by the time the state final begins, they will have gone a month without winning by fewer than 12 points.
But this team isn't the same as last year's 26-1 squad. It's telling that when asked about differences between the teams, Harwood names graduated Garland Owens, who the coach estimated dunked 75 times, and Luke Ruland and basically ignores the improvements.
Even Witmer's dunk — his fourth drive down the middle for a basket and a momentum-seizing play if there ever was one — was followed by a Poly 3-pointer that cut Magruder's advantage to six points.
“I didn't think we'd see the light after that,” Witmer said. “I thought it was all going downhill.”
But Magruder relied on its hardened defense — Harwood went out of his way to praise guard Matt Rickets, who helped hold Poly's John Crosby to 4-of-16 shooting — and timely scoring from point guard J.J. Epps.
Nick Griffin scored 14 points, but he committed his fourth foul late in the third quarter.
“After I picked it up, I just told J.J. to show me something,” Griffin said.
Epps scored eight of his 14 points after that.
But throughout the game highlighted by its three senior returning starters — Witmer, Griffin and Epps — the youngest of the bunch stood tallest.
Witmer, who skipped first grade, will remain 16 years old until June 20. He said being younger hasn't been as big a problem as most think (he's always been taller than his peers), and he can no longer remember being the same age as his classmates.
“I just try to step up to their level,” the 6-foot-3 Witmer said.
With Owens and Ruland graduating, Witmer knew he'd have to raise his game to another level this year, and he looked forward to the challenge since last season ended.
“It puts a lot of pressure on me, and usually, I don't crumble under pressure,” Witmer said.
He'll get another chance Saturday to prove that.
Witmer scored 18 points in state semifinals last year, but he had just three points in the state final. He's not looking to repeat that arc this season.
“When you have a great game, you're always on a pedestal. You feel really good,” Witmer said. “Like right now, I'm on top of the world. But I just want to get back and do the best I can to help our team to go out there and win another state championship.”
Col. Zadok Magruder 62, Poly 50
Poly 9 10 15 16 — 50
Magruder 15 15 9 23 — 62
Poly (20-7): Darrion Stokes-Graham 19, John Crosby 11, Terray Quickley 10, Darius Kelly 4, Will Wyche 2, Jordan McCray 2, Eric White 1, Julian Harris 1.
Magruder (24-2): Justin Witmer 17, Nick Griffin 14, J.J. Epps 14, Ryan Rucker 7, Brian Coleman 5, Matt Ricketts 4, Josiah Jones 1.