Boys’ basketball: Blake getting healthy just in time for playoff run

Injuries tripped up the Blake boys’ basketball team over and over again this season, and while the Bengals don’t want to make excuses, they do admit that with key players missing, parts of their season didn’t go quite as planned.

The injuries “messed with the flow a little bit,” said junior Jamal Nganga, the Bengals’ third leading scorer. “Especially in the middle part of the season.”

Blake (11-8, 3-6 Montgomery County 4A East) began the year 6-2, with one of its losses coming to No. 16 Springbrook, 62-57, in a contest that was even tighter than the final score showed. Then came the injuries — in particular, a knee injury to leading scorer Demonte Ojinnaka, which kept him out of game action for more than a month. Nganga and a handful of other players battled injuries off and on, and after that strong start, the Bengals dropped six of seven games in January.

“It’s not just the talent it takes away, it’s the chemistry it alters,” said senior forward Thomas Stanton. “I’m really glad we’re getting healthy now again toward the end of the year so we can hit our stride come playoff time.”

Ojinnaka returned earlier this month, and has reemerged as one of the most potent and versatile scoring threats in Montgomery County. As he and the rest of his teammates have come back from injury, the Bengals have rallied, winning five straight heading into this week’s regular-season finale against Richard Montgomery. Blake, which earned a No. 2 seed in 4A North and a first-round bye, will play Howard in a second-round game next week.

Despite the ups and downs visible in their results this season, it was an up in the midst of a down — the Bengals’ lone win in that 1-6 midseason stretch — that Stanton said revealed most about Blake’s playoff potential. In that game, a Jan. 24 matchup with Bethesda-Chevy Chase, the Bengals clawed out a win in the midst of a demoralizing skid without three of their top scorers. The Bengals say knowing they can win in those circumstances makes them believe a deep playoff run is possible.

“Unfortunately we had to go through adversity — but every team has to go through adversity,” senior guard Matthew Russell said. “Things spiraled a bit, but once we got everyone back, we got back to what we were doing at the beginning of the season, we pulled it together into a winning streak, so we feel really good heading into the playoffs.”

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