John Onukaogu picked the No. 32 jersey to wear during his senior season at Paint Branch as an homage to his all-time favorite players, Magic Johnson and O.J. Mayo. By the end of the first quarter Friday night against Blake, the 6-foot-3 forward was outfitted in No. 34 after his original shirt became bloodied thanks to a cut lip suffered in a battle underneath the basket.
In No. 11 Paint Branch’s 51-43 victory, Onukoagu didn’t play the flashy brand of basketball preferred by his heroes, but his rugged performance stood out, nonetheless. With baskets at a premium for both squads, he finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 12 blocks as the Panthers bounced back from their first loss of the season with a Montgomery 4A East victory in a packed home gym in Burtonsville.
“They were throwing some elbows in there,” Onukaogu said afterward, laughing about his jersey switch. “It’s a rivalry game. That’s what you expect.”
A day after falling at Sherwood, Paint Branch (9-1, 2-1 Montgomery 4A East) scored the game’s first 12 points and led by 16 early in the second quarter before going cold, offensively. Blake (6-4, 1-2) held the home team without a field goal in the first six minutes of the second half and pulled ahead to a 36-30 lead on senior Breon Herbert’s three-pointer with 2 minutes 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
From there, Paint Branch reasserted control, putting the game out of reach with a 19-3 run. The burst was fueled by a gritty effort on the defensive end with Onukaogu and 6-foot-4 junior Armando Nwizu guarding the rim at the back end of Paint Branch’s zone. The Bengals managed just three field goals in the game’s final 10 minutes.
Onukaogu, whom Coach Walter Hardy calls the team’s “most improved player,” did his part on the offensive end in the deciding push, too. He hit a turnaround shot in the lane with 6:25 remaining to put his team ahead for good and made a putback on the next possession to extend the lead.
“John’s a battler,” Hardy said. “Look at him, he’s only 6-3, if that. He plays with a lot of heart and makes up for his size with his heart.”
It was a bounceback effort personally for Onukaogu, who took Thursday’s 55-52 loss, particularly hard. He missed a few free throws down the stretch that he thought might have made the difference in a tight contest, and Hardy, sensing the disappointment, called his player later in the evening to tell him to keep his head up.
After Friday’s game, Onukaogu smiled broadly on his way out of the locker room, a grin that grew even wider when he learned he’d been credited with a triple-double.
“We looked past Sherwood, thinking about this game,” said Onukaogu, who averages 8.5 points per game. “We had to come out here and fight even harder. For us seniors, this is a rivalry game, so we didn’t want to lose against them.”
Senior guard A.K. Jones scored 10 points to pace Blake, which has now lost three straight games.