By: Dr. Richard Midcap, President, Garrett College
McHENRY – Frederick Community College's 10-point halftime cushion Sunday afternoon seemed quite comfortable given that the host Lakers made a grand total of eight first-half shots. One person who wasn't lulled into overconfidence, however, was FCC head men's basketball coach Emonte Hill.
"Our mentality is that we know good basketball teams are going to make runs, and we knew Garrett wasn't going to quit," said Hill, who was absolutely right.
The Lakers, held to 19 first-half points, got nearly that many in an 18-0 scoring spree that included four treys and a traditional three-point play that quickly turned a 36-22 deficit into a 40-36 advantage. Frederick, however, wasn't fazed by that streak – or playing without two starters – finishing the game with a 14-1 run that allowed the Cougars to pull out a 65-52 victory.
The Cougars (21-3 overall, 12-2 Maryland JuCo) didn't take the lead for good until Chris Knight's inside layup with 4:42 left broke a 51-51 tie. Ariel Watson hit the first of two free throws with 4:12 remaining to pull GC within 53-52, but the Lakers (13-10, 5-9) wouldn't score again.
"We wanted our defense to set the tone," said Hill, whose team's defense and Garrett's ice-cold shooting down the stretch combined to foil the Lakers' upset bid.
After Shakil Smith's inside layup stretched FCC's lead to 55-52, Watson (team-high 16 points) missed two shots – including an open potential game-tying trey – on Garrett's next possession. The Lakers then got a defensive stop, but Jermaine Samuel (15 points) missed his own open potential game-tying 3-pointer with 2:15 remaining.
Ben Meredith, who scored a game-high 20 points, converted a driving layup to stretch the Cougars' advantage to 57-52 before Watson missed another trey. Keon Claiborne scored half of his 12 points in the final 72 seconds, four on free throws, to seal the deal for FCC.
"They're the No. 1 seed in our region because they're balanced and they play really good defense," Garrett head coach Dennis Gibson said of the Cougars.
Frederick won with sophomore starting guards Morris Robinson and Dashon Bell held out as a precautionary measure.
"They're both nicked up and we were already locked into the third seed in the Maryland JuCo tournament," explained Hill. "All season we've trusted the 'next-man-up' philosophy and that's what we did today."
That philosophy looked solid in the first half as Frederick opened the game with a 14-4 spurt that Dwayne Garner (12 points) started and finished with 3-pointers. Kenneth Stancell, Jr. (6 points) had two inside layups during the Cougars' early surge.
While Frederick quickly cooled off, the Lakers never heated up in the first half. Garrett didn't break double digits until Vincent Collins' 3-pointer with 9:31 left in the half, which pulled the Lakers within 16-11.
The Lakers were still within five points, 22-17, after Malik Tillman (6 points) bagged a 3-pointer with 4:42 remaining in the half. Frederick, however, restored its 10-point cushion (29-19) by finishing the half with a 7-2 streak that included five points from Meredith.
Garrett's horrendous first-half offensive performance was due in large part to Watson's foul trouble. The sophomore guard picked up two fouls in the first four minutes and didn't play again before halftime.
"We probably depend on Ariel too much for our offense, so it hurt us when he picked up two fouls in four minutes," observed Gibson.
Frederick took its largest lead of the game, 36-22, on a Garner floater with 16:34 remaining in the contest. Garrett responded with 18 straight points, with Watson and Samuel each nailing a pair of treys.
The Lakers took their first lead, 37-36, on Watson's driving layup on the left side of the lane with 13:27 to play. Just 22 seconds later, Nicolas Osborne converted a driving layup on the right side of the lane into a three-point play that gave GC its largest lead of the contest, 40-36.
The Cougars responded with a 7-0 streak, capped by Knight's 3-pointer with 11:34 remaining to give Frederick a 43-40 advantage. All told, there were eight second-half lead changes, the last coming on Knight's layup that broke the 51-51 stalemate.
The Cougars weren't the only ones dealing with injuries. Simun Kovac – Garrett's 6-foot-8 sophomore forward who is one of the top inside players in the league when healthy – is trying to play his way back into game shape.
"Simun is one of the best rebounders in the state when he's healthy," observed Gibson. "When we don't have him, it puts a lot of pressure on Liu [Repsys] to do everything inside."
The Lakers will get a chance to rest and get healthy with a two-week break before finishing the regular season with road contests at Allegany College of Maryland (Feb. 25), Potomac State College (Feb. 28) and Northern Virginia Community College (March 5). They will then participate in the NJCAA Division II Region XX tournament March 9-11 at Cecil College, where FCC is the likely top seed.