Before the Maryland public school boys’ basketball playoffs began, coaches took differing opinions on the unusually long layoff between the end of the regular season and the playoffs this year.
On Thursday, Wise players wasted little time letting Coach Rob Garner know they had benefitted from their 15-day break. The Pumas used defensive pressure to open up a 25-point halftime lead on Laurel en route to a 77-50 victory.
They will meet DuVal, the only team to beat them twice this season, in a Maryland 4A South semifinal on Tuesday. No. 5 Eleanor Roosevelt hosts C.H. Flowers to decide the other berth in Friday’s region final.
“We kind of had this little saying, ‘Put up or shut up,’ Garner said. “We weren’t just going to talk about what we had to do to get better. We didn’t look past Laurel. . . . We all respected Laurel and prepared to play Laurel like it was our championship game.”
Four players hit double figures for Wise (18-5) in the emphatic performance. After giving up three quick baskets to start the game, the Pumas outscored the Spartans, 38-10, the rest of the first half.
Junior forward Micah Till led the surge with 19 points and 15 rebounds, while guards Ahsante Shivers (14 points), Lavonte Sanders (10 points) and Marquell Young (10 points) specialized in turning Laurel’s miscues into fast-break points on the other end.
“Coach [Garner] has been talking about finding our identity,” said Till, who averages 15.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. “We focused on defense because our defense leads to our offense.”
The payoff has been rewarding for Garner, who essentially had to start from scratch in his second season at the Upper Marlboro school with a completely new rotation. The Pumas endured a three-game losing streak in the second week of the season but have won 16 of their past 18 games since then.
Both losses came to DuVal, which will host the region semifinal as the No. 2 seed. When the teams met in Lanham on Feb. 5, the Tigers surged to an 18-point lead and held on for a 68-63 victory. Garner points to the loss as a turning point for the team, saying the players learned a lesson from a lackluster first half.
“It’s been a huge spiritual connection we’ve come away with,” said Garner, whose team is 0-4 this season against the other three squads still alive in the region. “It’s been so unique and odd. It’s not that we weren’t playing well before that, but we really kind of found ourselves in that loss.”
Wise also made it to the region semifinals last season before being bounced by Suitland at home. Till — a standout football player who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the Maryland 4A final win over Quince Orchard — was the only current player who logged meaningful minutes in that game.
The 6-foot-5 post player said he’s grateful for one more opportunity to flip the script against the Tigers.
“Most people are probably thinking, ‘They already lost to DuVal twice, so it’s probably going to happen again,’” Till said. “I say we’re a new team and we have a new attitude now.”