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Jan. 4, 2007

Defending state champs need OT to bury Blazers

by Abe Schwadron, Online Managing Editor
JAN. 3, NELSON H. KOBREN GYM-

The first month of the boys' varsity basketball team's season can be described by only one word: frustration. The Blazers (2-6) have shown glimpses of greatness only to be followed by cold shooting, mental mistakes and poor execution, leading the Blazers down the familiar path to a losing record. Blair's frustration continued last night, as the Blazers fell to the Whitman Vikings 60-53 in overtime, less than a week after having lost to the defending 4A state champions in Quince Orchard's Holiday tournament.

The Vikings (4-4) worked their way back into the game by slowing down the tempo of the game and patiently whittling away the Blazers' six-point halftime lead. Head coach Mark DeStefano attributed the team's inability to fend off Whitman to their familiarity with pressure situations. "Whitman doesn't get intimidated," said DeStefano. "They have state championship experience, and that was really the difference tonight."

For the Blazers, Wednesday's game was a tale of two halves. After playing Whitman even in the first quarter and speeding up the tempo of the game in the second, Blair led by six at the break. But rather than coming out of the locker room with the same level of intensity displayed in the first half, the Blazers went limp in the third quarter. Although they eventually battled back to send the game into overtime, coach DeStefano pointed to the opening minutes of the second half as the turning point in the game. "We took our foot off the gas pedal in the third quarter," he said. "We stopped pressing, we stopped taking care of the ball and we passed up opportunities."

The Blazers came out of the gates fast, playing full court pressure defense and setting the frenetic tempo that DeStefano had been looking for. The squad was hot from the start, shooting lights out from beyond the arc. Senior Ross Williams and junior Joe Dubuche knocked down back-to-back three-pointers in the first two minutes of play as Blair led 6-5.

But after senior point guard Darius Smith traded baskets with Whitman standout Antoine White and the Vikings executed an easy fastbreak, the Blazers found themselves trailing by three with less than a minute to go in the quarter. The Blazers worked the ball around Whitman's seemingly impenetrable zone defense, finally setting up senior forward Matt McClain for an open three that found the bottom of the net. At the end of one quarter of play, the teams were knotted at 13 apiece.

DeStefano inserted junior sparkplugs Issy Melton, Milton Colquehon and Marcellus Mohammad into the game to start the second quarter, and before Whitman could get set, Blair's young guns hit the ground running. Fifteen seconds in, Melton powered up a layup to give Blair a two-point advantage.

After Whitman inbounded, the Blazers' pressure D paid off, as Melton came up with a loose ball and fed Colquehon downcourt for a layup. On Whitman's next possession, Colquehon grabbed a long rebound and went coast to coast for a deja-vu deuce. Mohammad got in on the action next, taking a handoff on the wing from Melton and soaring towards the hoop. His left-handed scoop shot banked off the backboard and in as the referee blew his whistle for a foul. Mohammad completed the three-point play with a swish from the charity stripe.

DeStefano said he was pleased with the team's effort in the second quarter, a product of the uptempo pace of the game. "[Whitman] had a lot of turnovers, and our guys did a good job of forcing those," said the coach.

Blair continued to pour it on, as senior Tori Patton weaved through Whitman's zone and on a clever interior pass found a wide-open Melton for an easy lay-in. Colquehon added a beautiful step-back jumper to put the finishing touches on a 13-2 Blair run to open the second period of play.

With the Blazers leading 26-15, Whitman had no choice but to call a timeout to stop the bleeding. A 5-0 run by Whitman out of the timeout narrowed the Blazers' lead, but at halftime Blair still found themselves in a comfortable spot, up 28-22.

And then came the third quarter. The Blazers extended their lead to ten points after trading a pair of free throws with the Vikings and getting buckets by Williams and senior center Rich Chavez. With 5:10 to play in the quarter, Blair's offense shut down. Whitman center Sam Burum knocked down a three to start a 10-0 run by the Vikings. Burum's second trey of the night tied the game at 34 with two minutes remaining in the third.

The Blazers were dazed and confused as Whitman calmly crawled back into the game. DeStefano put it simply: "We're not a good enough team to wander."

Blair stayed close by making key free throws, but as time wound down in the quarter, White went to work. His twisting layup in the lane with less than 10 seconds to go gave Whitman a 39-37 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

With 5:45 left in the fourth and the Blazers still trailing by two, Smith broke ahead of the pack after securing a loose ball and muscled a layup over Burum to tie the game at 41. Whitman's Mikey Fitzpatrick, who dropped 21 points on the Blazers in the teams' matchup last Thursday, drained a daringly deep three-ball to give his team the edge. Blair answered as Smith found senior Mohammed Roberson on a backdoor cut; Roberson finished the play with an acrobatic layup.

The teams traded baskets until with 1:48 to play and Blair still trailing by one, Williams smacked the ball out of Fitzpatrick's triple threat stance and went the distance to give the Blazers the lead back. With less than a minute to go, White coolly swished a four-foot fadeaway in the lane to put Whitman back up by one. Dubuche made the second of two free throws with 32.5 seconds to play to tie the game at 50. Whitman held for the last shot, but couldn't connect on a three-pointer from the wing. Smith got off a halfcourt prayer at the buzzer that would have sealed the game for Blair in regulation, but his shot was just wide.

In overtime, it was all Whitman. White put on a show in the extra period, scoring six straight points. Whitman scored nine unanswered points in OT, and though Smith drained a three with 12 seconds to play, the Blazers' fate had been decided minutes earlier. When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read Vikings 60, Blazers 53.

White and Fitzpatrick were the game's high scorers; the dynamic duo finished with 17 points each. Smith led the Blazers in scoring with 11 points, while Williams contributed 10 in the loss. Other Blazers who put up points last night included Colquehon (6), Roberson (6), McClain (5), Chavez (4), Dubuche (4), Melton (4) and Mohammad (3).

More than anything, DeStefano wants his team to be able to fight through bad stretches and be ready to turn around and make the next play at any given time during the game. "We keep stressing 'go on to the next play'. We can't be the type of team that dwells on mistakes."

And though the team's 2-6 record may not be pretty, the Blazers have been competitive in every game. Although he'd rather be blowing teams out, DeStefano says the team is learning as they go. "Before you can learn how to win, you have to learn how to lose," he said.

"For a program that hasn't had success in a long time, it's easy to get happy with being close," DeStefano said. "But we can't be satisfied with close games."

The Blair boys' varsity basketball team takes on Sherwood at home at 5:15 pm Friday, Jan. 5.



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