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Magruder heads to third consecutive regional final

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Published on: Thursday, March 07, 2013

By Holden Wilen

ROCKVILLE – Another year, another trip to the Maryland 4A West Regional finals for the Magruder High School boys’ basketball team. But it wasn’t easy.

Fourth-seeded Kennedy High School gave Magruder, the top seed in the region, all it could handle Tuesday night, hanging around all game but eventually falling 62-48. Magruder was led by its three senior leaders, senior forward Justin Witmer and senior guards J.J. Epps and Nick Griffin, who all scored in double figures. Whitmer finished with a game-high 18 points, while Epps and Griffin finished with 16 points apiece. Magruder won its 28th consecutive home game, meaning the senior trio has not lost a game on their home floor in more than two years.

Magruder got off to a quick start in the game, taking an early 9-3 lead. Trailing 11-6, Kennedy coach Diallo Nelson called a timeout with just under three minutes left in the first quarter. The Cavaliers came out of the timeout and immediately went on a 10-5 run to end the quarter, capped by a buzzer-beating three-pointer by senior guard Marcus Murray to tie the game at 16-16.

The two teams continued to battle in the second quarter, exchanging the lead six times. With under two minutes remaining in the half, Witmer drove down the lane and threw down a dunk to give Magruder the lead at 28-27. The team would never lose the lead again, and led 30-27 at halftime.

“That was, I’m not counting but that was my fourth dunk of the season,” Witmer said. “It was probably the cleanest one because I had the open lane. I actually didn’t think I was going to do it at first, but it was just there.”

Kennedy “was on fire” in the first half, Magruder head coach Dan Harwood said. Magruder had only given up just over three three-pointers per game this year, he said, but in the first half Kennedy hit six three-point shots. Additionally, Marcus Murray, Kennedy’s leading scorer this season with 18 points per game, found his groove in the first half scoring 11 points.

To counteract Murray and the Kennedy offense, Harwood said Magruder started using a matchup zone more often in the second half. The zone worked, holding Murray without a point until he hit a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter. Magruder outscored Kennedy 17-8 in the third quarter, including a 7-0 run to end the quarter. Epps hit a fade away bank-shot to start the run. On the next possession, Griffin hit a three-pointer. Epps then stole the ball and broke away for an easy layup to end the quarter and extend the lead to 47-35.

Nelson said Magruder’s matchup zone caused problems because it made it harder for Murray, who finished with 14 points, to be effective.  Usually Murray controls the point, but when Magruder switched to a zone Nelson moved him to a wing position to give him more opportunities to score. However, because of Murray’s lack of height, Nelson said he can only be effective if other players are hitting shots on the perimeter and forcing defenders to check them, which opens up the middle of the defense for Murray

“The reality of it is I put Marcus out there and I surround him with guys he makes better,” Nelson said. “There’s a lot of weight on his shoulders, and he plays almost 32 minutes a game every night. Tonight (Magruder) did a good job of rotating people on him. Guys I think he usually depends on to hit shots weren’t as consistent as they usually were.”

Kennedy began the fourth quarter on a 11-4 run and cut the lead to 51-46. With one minute and fifty-two seconds remaining in the game an intentional foul was called, resulting in two free-throw attempts for Epps and another possession for Magruder. Epps knocked down both shots began a 9-0 run, all free throws, which sealed the game for Magruder.

Nelson said the intentional foul call by the referees frustrated him because everyone in the building knew his team was going to try and foul. On the next play an exact same foul occurred, but it was not called an intentional foul, he said. The call, Nelson said, made it harder for his team to win because it gave Magruder an extra possession.

Meanwhile, Harwood said he felt uneasy about the physicality about the game.

“It was a physical game, but the game’s getting like that,” Harwood said. “Maybe too much so, definitely too physical in college back when I played to now. In high school it’s getting a little more physical too, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I would really rather have more of a game with finesse.”

Next year Kennedy will have several returning players, Nelson said, as well as several players coming up from the junior varsity team. The program made progress this season in winning 17 games in its first season competing at the 4A level after winning nine games at the 3A level last year. Nelson said his team left a footprint, and he hopes the underclassmen can carry on the success they tasted this season.

As for Magruder, the team will play in its third consecutive regional final this week. This year they face Quince Orchard, which beat Churchill 62-57, on Friday at Blair High School.

“Take it day by day,” Whitmer said when asked about the team’s mindset heading going into Friday. “Don’t take anyone lightly, and come out with the same energy we came out with tonight.”

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