Brendan O'Connell has said before that if his Eleanor Roosevelt High School boys basketball team makes their free throws, they're going to win. If not, they'll find another way to win.
On Saturday, nine days after finding another way to beat Henry A. Wise in the regional final, and two after finding another way to top North Point in the state semifinals, the Raiders improvised, for one last time, to take down reigning champ Col. Zadok Magruder, 61-56, and win their first state title since 2002.
“We talked about that all game, all year long. We're not going to have any excuse when we lose,” O'Connell said. “They bought into it. If we make shots, if we make free throws, that's great, but you got to find a way to win when you don't. Too many times I think people blame free throws for losing.”
In sealing Prince George's County's first boys basketball state title since 2008, Roosevelt overcame fourth quarter free throw shooting of 5-of-15 (Wise), 5-of-12 (North Point) and 9-of-15 (Magruder).
As O'Connell has readily pointed out, each game featured a new way for Roosevelt to get its victory. Tiwian Kendley was the difference against Wise. Lerenzo Foote was the unlikely hero in toppling tournament favorite North Point. Jesse Ason and Malachi Alexander's tenacious efforts inside the paint and on the boards were the crux of Magruder's shortcomings.
“They're very big,” Magruder coach Dan Harwood said. “They really hurt us inside, 20 offensive rebounds … we couldn't get to the foul line (the Colonels shot zero free throws), we couldn't penetrate in there against them.”
The Ason-Alexander duo combined for 23 rebounds — 10 offensive, 13 defensive — 17 of the Raiders' 32 points in the paint — doubling Magruder's total — and anchored a Roosevelt interior that all but nullified anything the Colonels ever tried inside the lane.
“Before the game we talked about pounding it inside,” Ason said. “We definitely did that, like you said, first couple possessions pounding it inside.”
O'Connell has been preaching all season long that this was the team where the pieces had finally all come together. Ason and Alexander were critical inside, but just about every player that stepped foot on the Comcast Center floor in a Roosevelt jersey made a contribution.
Point guard Emmanuel Matey controlled the pace from the get-go, rarely turning it over all the while creating for others with dribble drives into the paint. Shooting guard Trevor Evans was, as he always is, a threat not to be ignored from beyond the arc, finishing with 10 points on two threes. Kendley, typically the most athletic player on the court no matter the team, consistently brought the raucous Raider student section to its feet with alley-oop dunks, fast-break slams and a variety of blocks to finish with a game-high 19 points. Foote, once again, provided valuable, mistake-free minutes, scoring six points, swiping two steals, shooting 50 percent from the field, 100 percent from the line, and not turning it over a single time.
“We won our league, which wasn't easy. We won the county championship, we won a regional championship, we had 27 wins — more wins than any Roosevelt team ever has,” O'Connell said. “Yeah, we had different types of players but we just said in the locker room too, they all like each other and it's a really special team.”
Had a casual observer stopped by the post-game press conferences, it would have been difficult to conclude that Roosevelt had just won the 4A state title, the most coveted prize in all of Maryland High School basketball, and not just some anonymous regular season game. There was an air that this championship was sort of expected, that this win wasn't any different than the other 26.
“I never felt like there was a monkey on my back,” O'Connell said.
As the coach got up to leave the press conference, an MPSSAA official grabbed him and told him he forgot something. The coach turned, chuckled, and picked up the state championship plaque he almost forgot.
Maybe it was a little expected after all.
Roosevelt 61, Magruder 56
Roosevelt 19 12 12 18— 61
Magruder 15 13 9 19— 56
Roosevelt: Tiwian Kendley 19; Trevor Evans 10; Jesse Ason 10; Malachi Alexander 7; Emmanuel Matey 6; Lerenzo Foote 6; Andre Fox 3.
Magruder: J.J. Epps 14; Justin Witmer 11; Nick Griffin 9; Joe Hugley 9; Brian Coleman 5; Matt Ricketts 3; Josiah Jones 3; Ryan Rucker 2.