Lanky Gwynn Park senior Mike Pegram appeared to be completely unconcerned about his highly-charged circumstances Wednesday night as he sat near the foul line, meticulously tying his shoes with 20 seconds to play. His team was up a point over rival Largo in the 2A South quarterfinal — thanks to the two free throws he’d hit a few seconds earlier — and he’d just been fouled again, his upcoming shots as important as any he’d shoot in a Yellow Jackets uniform.
Everyone else in the gym felt the weight of the moment. The crowd was bursting with nerves, on the edge of its seat, the Gwynn Park girls’ team — next on the evening’s playoff schedule — was hovering anxiously behind the baseline, the players and referees were in position for Pegram’s shots. But Pegram didn’t share their agitation. He laced his Nikes slowly and carefully, stepped to the line and soaked in the moment with a few deep breaths, and hit two more free throws to doom Largo and send his Yellow Jackets into the 2A South semifinals with a 45-41 win.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Pegram said. “I just thought in my head, it’s just practice.”
While his calmness was unique among players and fans at the third meeting and rubber match between the Prince George’s County rivals, Pegram’s deliberate pace mirrored the game perfectly. Gwynn Park wanted to slow its rival down, sagging in a 2-3 zone and doubling Largo big man Abdulai Bundu to stymie the Lions’ plan of attack. Offensively, the Yellow Jackets worked through long sets and took what Largo’s defense gave them — midrange jumpers that avoided taking on Bundu in his blocking zone down low and spread the Lions’ defense.
The strategy succeeded for Gwynn Park, which held Largo to its lowest point total of the season by 18 points, surviving a similarly stingy, season-low effort from its own offense.
“Defensively, we wanted to shut down Bundu,” said Gwynn Park center Isaiah Martin, who stole the block show with nine crucial swats. “Offensively, we felt their guards couldn’t check our guards and their big men couldn’t check our big men outside the three-point line, so we wanted to spread them out. We can run, but we had to play a different game today.”
Martin and the Yellow Jackets’ double-team kept Bundu at bay, forcing the 6-8 forward to the free throw line, where he scored 10 of his 16 points. Largo’s outside shooters nearly made Gwynn Park pay for the zone, knocking down enough jumpers to keep up with the Yellow Jackets duo of Cedric Hines (10 points) and Evan Joiner (13 points). The game featured 14 lead changes, six in the fourth quarter alone.
“That was the kind of game we wanted to play: a slow-down, grind-it-out game,” Gwynn Park Coach Mike Glick said. “I was really proud of how our kids hit free throws at the end.”
The Yellow Jackets rallied from a slow start under the guidance of junior Armani Mooney, who scored nine points and kept the offense clicking.
“She played solid; she’s been playing solid for us all year,” said Mike Strother. “She’s sacrificed a lot in terms of scoring this year to help lead the team, and I think she’s done a great job, and did a great job tonight.”
Gwynn Park’s other constant back-court spark, senior Tashina Cardwell, turned in a high-energy performance against the Patriots (7-15), scoring 13 points to lead Gwynn Park’s scorers. Senior center Ashanti Freeland added 12 and Chantelle Gross scored 10 to propel the Yellow Jackets.
Gwynn Park (19-2) will host Largo in the semifinal Thursday in what will be the third meeting between the Prince George’s 3A/2A/1A rivals. Each team has won one of those matchups, the Yellow Jackets most recently with a 66-54 win to clinch the league title in the last game of the regular season.