Monday, March 10, 2014 5:17 AM
Published on: Thursday, February 14, 2013
By Holden Wilen
DERWOOD - J.J. Epps had a 101.3-degree temperature Monday and was not sure if he was going to be able to play in Tuesday’s highly touted matchup of division winners Magruder and Paint Branch.
Luckily for Magruder (18-2), the senior guard recovered in time to put in a dominant performance and lead the Colonels to a 73-56 victory over the Montgomery County 4A East division champions. Epps tied the game-high score of 22 points with fellow Colonel Brian Coleman, who had 9-of-14 shooting; 19 of Epps’ points came in the first half, and he shot 8-of-10 from the floor. Epps also dazzled the crowd with several assists to set up easy baskets for his teammates.
“[J.J. Epps] was something else,” said Paint Branch head coach Walter Hardy. “If I wasn’t coaching against him I’d say, ‘Damn, he’s fun to watch.’ He was tough. He’s tough to guard, and he creates things for other people really well.”
Paint Branch (17-3) started the game well, leading throughout the first quarter and taking an 18-15 lead into the second quarter. Epps kept Magruder within striking distance, however, with 11 points in the quarter.
Trailing 22-19 in the second quarter, Epps simply took over the game, leading Magruder on a 13-0 run. The run started when Epps hit a 3-pointer to tie the game. On the next possession, Coleman, a senior forward, cut to the basket and Epps hit him in stride with a no-look pass to set up an easy layup.
Junior forward Danny Schaerr followed with a long jump-shot of his own to push the lead to 28-22. Then, with just over three minutes remaining in the half, Epps hit a 15-foot jumper as he was fouled and made the ensuing free throw. Epps followed the play up with another assist on the next possession, a pass to a wide-open Ryan Rucker, who knocked down a 3-pointer to give Magruder a 32-22 lead. Magruder outscored Paint Branch 25-6 in the second quarter and led 40-24 at halftime.
“I saw that we were a bit stagnant and couldn’t really get an open shot or an open kick-out like we usually do,” Epps said. “Coach always tells us in practice, against the good teams we’re going to have to get a double close-out. I mean you’ve got to swing it twice before you can get a close-out and get a good shot. We couldn’t really get that in the beginning so I just kind of took into my own hands to score, get it started, and then in the second half facilitate and get everybody else open so we could open up the lead.”
Leading scorer Nick Griffin scored 12 points off of four 3-point shots. As a team, Magruder shot 51 percent and hit 10 3-pointers. The defense held Paint Branch to 32 percent from the field. Paint Branch’s leading scorer, senior guard Jordan Radway, came in averaging 11.6 points per game, but he only scored two points Tuesday.
Epps and Coleman were two of eight senior players honored on Senior Night. Harwood said the class has meant a lot to the basketball program because of how positively they represent the school and their role in helping the community overcome the tragic loss of three lives in a drunken driving accident, including the life of former basketball player Spencer Datt.
“Luckily basketball was kind of a diversion for the school last year and the community, and they won the state championship,” Harwood said. “These kids are all just quality individuals. It’s great to see them have a great memory of a great game in their last home game as seniors.”
For Paint Branch, the loss is a wake-up call. Hardy said he told the players their next game against Clarksburg is the biggest game of the season because the team is fighting to hold onto its playoff seeding. Paint Branch currently holds a three seed with the loss but is still in contention for a higher seeding.
Meanwhile, Epps said the biggest thing for the number-one seeded Colonels is to remain healthy and keep playing defense.
“Defense wins games,” he said. “That’s the main thing we’ve got to do. I mean, our offense will come. We can always shoot, and we can always score the ball, so the main thing is playing defense.”
It also helps if Epps continues to put together performances like the one he put on Tuesday.