BURTONSVILLE — The Paint Branch varsity basketball team emerged victorious Thursday over the visiting Kennedy Cavaliers, 79-75, in the final championship game of the Walter Hardy Holiday Hoopfest Invitational Tournament.
It was a fitting ending to a tournament that honored a man who had left an indelible mark on both schools featured in the championship game.
Hardy, a Paint Branch graduate, coached the Panthers for 17 seasons and served as athletic director at Kennedy. He had just begun his tenure as Sherwood’s athletic director when he died suddenly in September.
Current Panthers head coach Chris Bohlen helped organize the tournament as a way to not only honor Hardy but to raise money for the Walter Hardy Scholarship Fund. Bohlen hopes to make the tournament an annual affair.
“[Hardy] has done so much for the community and for Paint Branch,” said Bohlen. “When his family established the scholarship fund, it was a no-brainer to use the proceeds and donations to help benefit that fund.”
The two-day tournament featured eight varsity teams and four junior varsity teams competing against each other for the honor of being crowned champions of the first ever Holiday Hoopfest.
Kennedy head coach Diallo Nelson knew Hardy for nearly 30 years and even competed against him in high school. When Nelson heard about the tournament honoring Hardy, he pulled the Cavaliers from another invitational so that they could participate in the Holiday Hoopfest.
“I was supposed to be at the Severna Park Tournament and when they called me and asked me to come here, I found a replacement for my team so that they could come play,” said Nelson.
The final championship game proved to be a fitting ending to the tournament as the two division rivals went head-to-head in a heated, emotional matchup.
Paint Branch guard Richard Dudley earned Most Valuable Player honors after leading all scorers with 38 points. Dudley’s clutch performance proved instrumental in the Panthers’ victory since the junior had an answer for every big Kennedy play.
Kennedy junior guard Myles Lewis forced turnovers and provided the spark the Cavaliers needed defensively. Lewis finished the game with a team-high 26 points.
The fast-paced game stayed close for the first two quarters and both squads went into the locker room tied at 38 at the half.
The Panthers came out swinging in the third quarter and ramped up their defensive intensity, forcing the Cavaliers to get sloppy with their ball-handling. The 11-point lead was Paint Branch’s largest of the night.
Lewis made sure the Panthers didn’t get too comfortable. The junior led the charge and orchestrated a fourth quarter comeback along with guards Detrick Ntam and Joel Kamden.
Kennedy held the Panthers to just free throws in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter as Lewis and Kamden dropped back-to-back three-point baskets.
Ntam made it look easy as he juked a Paint Branch defender for two points that brought the Kennedy fans to their feet.
Cavaliers senior forward Habaccuc Regnis dunked with two minutes left to give Kennedy its first lead of the half.
The game was tied with just 63 seconds left to play. However, the foul trouble that had plagued Kennedy throughout the game resulted in the Panthers pulling ahead for the final time.
After the game, the Panthers received a trophy commemorating their tournament championship victory. Ntam and Paint Branch forward Xavier Reaves earned medals for their respective performances during the tournament.
“It’s a little emotional, to be honest,” said Bohlen of his team’s victory. “I knew Walter for 15 years and he was a huge part of me coming here and getting this job. His friendship meant a whole lot to me. It’s humbling.”
The Cavaliers and the Panthers will open 2018 the same way they closed 2017: playing against each other.
“I think Paint Branch has probably the best team in the county,” said Nelson. “Playing teams like that doesn’t make you worse, it makes you better.”