DUMFRIES On the same day one of their stars from the past appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Potomac’s newest group of ballplayers earned its second consecutive trip to the state tournament.
The Panthers used stingy man-to-man defense and a patient offense to score 22 of the game’s final 27 points in a 47-30 Group AAA, Northwest Region Tournament semifinal victory over Woodbridge.
Potomac, which plays Gar-Field today at a neutral site in a 7 p.m. regional final, can win its fifth regional title since 1990 and will play either George Wythe or Highland Springs in a state quarterfinal on Saturday.
The Panthers will be making their seventh state tournament appearance under head coach Kendall Hayes. University of Kentucky guard Cliff Hawkins, who was a part of two Potomac regional champions and state tournament teams, is featured on the cover of this week’s SI.
Potomac’s new generation is a less-flashy mix of players who, on Wednesday at least, were willing to take charges, go after loose balls on the floor and patiently work through the Panther offense.
Juniors Jason Flagler and Bryan Butler joined seniors Germain Williams and Reggie Rodriguez outside the locker room after the victory. They were all smiles, just happy to be able to keep playing together, not at all thinking about their place in Panther history.
“It feels good,” said Flagler of his second state tournament trip in three varsity seasons. “I just miss having guys like Eric [Sidberry] and Ian [Sumers] with us.”
“I think it’s a little more fun this year,” said Butler. “We’ve got some clowns on this team.”
“But we come together when it’s game time,” said Williams, finishing his teammate’s sentence.
Wednesday’s semifinal matched two coaches who have passed the 300-victory mark and two of the region’s most successful programs. For the first 21 minutes, it looked like it might be a thriller.
The Vikings’ Chris Kendall went coast-to-coast and banked a jumper to tie the game at 25 with 3:05 left in the third period. But Potomac scored eight of the final 10 points in the quarter, and then Jason Flagler helped the Panthers pull away by burying a huge 3-pointer three minutes into the fourth to give his team a nine-point lead.
The Vikings missed seven shots and committed four turnovers while going scoreless for 8:23 of the second half. Potomac led 29-27 after Woodbridge’s Darren Robertson made a layup at 1:55 of the third, and 42-29 when Viking David Walker made a putback at 1:32 of the fourth.
Hayes, whose team won regional titles in 1990, 1995, 1997 and 1998 and were runners-up in 2000 and 2002, said he did not make any strategic moves at the half, his team just played better after the break.
“We didn’t really change things up,” Hayes said. “[Woodbridge was] the aggressor … They deserved to be ahead at the half.”
Of his team’s ability to buckle down on defense, Hayes said only that Woodbridge “didn’t get a lot of looks,” or open shots.
“We didn’t get good looks because we didn’t make good passes,” said Vikings head coach Will Robinson, who has taken his team to 13 consecutive regional tournaments. “Part of our game plan was to penetrate and kick [to open shooters], but we would penetrate and try to score on three people.”
The Vikings, which finished the season 17-10, made eight 3-pointers in a 76-56 regional quarterfinal win over Halifax on Saturday.
Robinson was disappointed with his team’s offensive execution and said they made mistakes they hadn’t made in weeks. At one point, he said he hadn’t done a very good job coaching this year’s team.
But after falling behind 10-4 out of the gate, the Vikings rallied to go up 13-12 and seemed to match Potomac’s effort, if not dictate the pace of the game.
“I didn’t think we were comfortable at any time during the game,” Robinson said. “I thought we were very unsure of ourselves … selfish … I think they pounded us on the glass.”
With the game tied at 25, Williams went baseline, then up-and-under for a high-off-the-glass layup. Williams snagged a defensive rebound, which led to a Anthony Mills layup, assisted by Flagler.
Robertson scored for Woodbridge, then Butler found Flagler for a layup to make it 31-27. After a Woodbridge travel, Williams held for the final shot of the third. With David Walker guarding him, Williams waited until there were five seconds on the clock and drove right. Walker fell down as Williams went back to his left and made a layup at the buzzer, which got the crowd excited.
“They said I pushed off,” said Williams, smiling.
Taking their time on offense in the fourth, Butler drove and kicked to Flagler for a 3-pointer that made it 36-27 with 4:51 to play. From there, Butler made 5 of 8 free throws and scored nine of his game-high 12 points to help the Panthers pull away.
“I thought they wanted it more than we did,” said Robinson. “We didn’t demonstrate the type of fight we’ve grown used to here.”
Hayes also thought the game was much tighter than the score indicated.
Woodbridge finished shooting 12 of 39 (31 percent). Walker’s eight points led the Vikings.
Flagler added 11 points for 21-4 Potomac.