Friendly Rides Defense to Final

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

After losing two of their final three regular season games, the Friendly seniors conducted a players-only meeting. Sure, they were still one of the top teams in Prince George's County heading into the playoffs, but the message was simple: Wake up and get back to defense.

The ninth-ranked Patriots have fully embraced that message, especially yesterday in a 64-37 win over No. 13 Atholton in a Maryland 3A semifinal at the University of Maryland's Comcast Center. Friendly held the Raiders to their lowest point total of the season and advanced to its first state final appearance since winning the title in 2004.

"We really believe that defense is going to win us the game," said forward Justin Strong, who had a game-high four blocked shots. "Early in the season our defense was our rock. We had to get back to that, and I think we really have."

Atholton (23-4) withstood the Patriots' initial push in the first quarter, but a pair of three-pointers by A.J. Thomas, who recorded a team-high 19 points, on consecutive possessions to start the second quarter gave the Patriots (24-3) an eight-point lead that continued to grow.

Despite their height advantage, the Raiders, who made their first state tournament appearance since 1982, were unable to answer the frantic pace of Friendly's defense. Even when Atholton was able to break free of the zone trap, the Raiders rushed and consequently missed several easy layups.

"It's really tough to simulate that type of pressure," Atholton Coach Jim Albert said. "We don't see it that often. It was certainly more pressure than you can prepare for. It wasn't anything we hadn't seen before or anything we hadn't done before, they just did it better."

What the Patriots lack in size they make up for in pesky speed. In practice and games, Friendly Coach Rob Garner tracks how many times his players get their hands, or even fingertips, on a ball to interrupt passes or shots or simply ruin an opponent's concentration.

"A lot of times, you don't really get the steal," Garner said. "It's the pressure. It's forcing them into a quicker pass, making them uncomfortable and getting deflections. To us that's a very important stat for our team."

Against Atholton, the Raiders earned steals. Guards Thomas, Michael Gonzales, Sherrod Baltimore and Bryan Brooks zipped around the court and combined for 10 steals. Their effectiveness was most apparent during a run that stretched about 11 minutes from the second to third quarter, when the Patriots scored 14 of 16 points.

"They were running the flex offense that we saw against Huntingtown," said Gonzales, who led the Patriots with four steals. "We knew we would have to rely on our speed to cover two spots at once, and it worked well."

No. 9 Friendly 64 No. 13 Atholton 37 Up Next: Friendly will play Lake Clifton (27-0) tomorrow in the 3A championship game at Comcast Center. How Low? Despite holding the Raiders to their lowest point total of the season, the Patriots stressed that this was not their best defensive outing of the season. They're still trying to re-create the type of game they had during a 98-21 win over Surrattsville on Jan. 6.

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