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March 5, 2008

Boys' basketball savors Sweet 16 bid

by Greg Kohn, Online Sports Editor
WOOTTON HIGH SCHOOL, Mar. 4

With the game deadlocked at 41-41 and one minute remaining, the Blair's boys' basketball team (7-15) scored the final four points to clinch the upset against the divisional champion Wootton Patriots on Tuesday night, 45-41. Behind their roaring fans, the Blazers extended their improbable run to four wins in a row, with the next contest on Thursday versus second seed Magruder (16-6) in the regional semifinals.
<i>Courtesy of MPSSAA</i>
Courtesy of MPSSAA


The Patriots, who were coming off a bye after clinching the 4A West division title, tied the score at 35-35 on a deep three with just under five minutes in the fourth quarter. Moments later, Wootton guard Titus Cheng hit his only three-pointer to seize the lead, which Blair had held since early in the third quarter. Cheng, who was recently named to the county all-star team and hurt Blair when the two teams met during the regular season, failed to be a major factor in the game after getting into foul trouble early.

In the fast-paced game, Blair came within one on a long outlet pass to senior guard Quentin Snively, who ran the fast break and drove for a lay-in for two of his game-high eleven points. Senior center Issy Melton made his return, sporting a bandage under his left eye, covering a cut that had kept him out most of the second half. He immediately made an impact, muscling his way under the basket to recapture the lead for the Blazers, 39-38. Then, off a Snively steal, senior co-captain Joe Dubuche added another deuce.

On defense, the Blazers forced a critical Wootton turnover their third in a row and held the ball for nearly thirty seconds before senior co-captain Milton Colquehoun was fouled with 1:06 remaining. After Colquehoun could not convert, Wootton guard Chris Cohen hit a clutch three-pointer to bring the Patriots even, 41-41.

"At that point, you can't say 'oh, here we go again,'" junior Michael McClain explained. "We'd won the past couple games in the same situation, and we knew we could do it again." McClain, who ran the point and was instrumental in building a Blair lead, was unable to finish the game due to a pulled left hamstring.

In response to Wootton's equalizer, Colquehoun, who dominated in Blair's playoff victory over Blake, drove to the basket for the lead. While his attempt rolled out, junior center Leon Sampson rose above Wootton defenders to tip the ball in for a crucial 43-41 edge. A Patriot was fouled on the following play, but with 13.1 seconds left, missed both free throws. Dubuche finalized the lead with two free-throws on separate fouls for a final 45-41 score.

In an almost intentional style, Blair followed a game plan that has been consistent all season long: establish an early third quarter lead, only to allow the game to be determined in the final moments of play. After falling to a misrepresentative 5-17 regular season record, the game plan has led the Blazers to four straight victories and has resulted in some confidence to continue to close out games.

"The recent string of wins reflects improvement in the fourth quarter," head coach Mark DeStefano said. "We're finally finishing the effort."

Blair recovered from an early deficit after Wootton scored 11 unanswered points in the first quarter. By the end of the period, the Blazers drew within four, 11-7. Blair carried the momentum into the second, tying the game at 15-15 on a dish from senior forward Rex Jarrett to Snively. Jarrett, who normally comes off the bench to relieve Melton, received extended playing time due to Melton's injury.

After leading 17-15 at halftime, Blair continued to pound on the Patriots. Snively single-handedly scored seven unanswered points, converting on a three-point play, a put back and a behind-the-back feed from Colquehoun. Wootton responded with their own 7-0 run, which continued into the last period. The Blazers led 31-26 at the start of the fourth quarter.

As Blair continues their playoff run, they travel to Magruder on Thursday, another team they went 0-2 against during the regular season. However, in their Feb. 1 match-up, Blair was ahead going into the fourth quarter before squandering the lead. In addition to these warrants for revenge, Magruder also knocked Blair out of the second round of the playoffs last year.

The sentiment means little to the head coach, however. "I don't care if Sherwood or Magruder advances [to become our opponent]," DeStefano said prior to their result. "I'm thinking about us continuing what we've done the past couple of games. Now that we've had a taste of the playoffs, I think we can prepare ourselves for the next level, whoever it is against."

The Blazers' regional semifinal game is at Magruder on Thursday, March 6 at 7 p.m.



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