Moral victories are a subplot to the Potomac Falls High School boys basketball team's goals this season, the first at the varsity level for the entire team.
The Panthers felt they had secured one by halftime of their game Tuesday night against Park View in the semifinals of the Loudoun Times-Mirror Holiday Basketball Classic on the Patriots' home court, but they ran into problems. Potomac Falls's shooters would lose their touches, and Park View would turn up its pressure, scoring the first 14 points of the second half to roll to another blowout of its local rival, 81-59.
"We did a pretty good job against [the pressure] in the first half," Panthers Coach Jeff Hawes said. "But what really hurt us was our shooting. If we could have made a couple of those baskets, it's a much closer game and maybe they don't pull away. But obviously, we take a little bit of confidence from this game knowing that we could play with them in stretches."
In fact, Potomac Falls had effectively rendered the Patriots' vaunted full-court pressure an exercise in wasted energy during the first half. This was particularly rewarding considering that just seven days earlier, the Panthers were overwhelmed by the pressure and lost by 33. Though they trailed this time by 13, the score was deceptive. Potomac Falls was very much in the game.
In last week's game, the Panthers could not even move the ball out of the back court. But this time, through a series of short, quick passes, they were able to move the ball smoothly into the front court either for an easy shot or to set up their half-court offense.
The Panthers broke the press early on by inbounding the ball to a man in the middle of the back court. Then he had the option of feeding a player streaking down either sideline or kicking it backward to the point guard, DeMario McCleary. This was much more effective than asking McCleary to bring the ball up all on his own.
"We didn't have any intensity in the first half," Park View Coach Ken Edwards said. "But we knew that if we picked it up defensively, usually the offense will pick up also. So we stepped up the pressure because they were breaking it pretty easily in the first half."
But in the second half, Park View realized the key was the middle man and had Nick Smith harass him relentlessly. The pressure there typically forced turnovers.
"He freelances the middle of the court, kind of like using his football skills," Edwards said, referring to Smith's play at defensive back on Park View's football team. "He reads the eyes of the guy with the ball and goes after him."
Smith led the Patriots in scoring for the third game in a row, with 20 points, in addition to being the linchpin of the press.
"I think [Potomac Falls] thought they had a chance at halftime," Smith said. "But when we stepped up the pressure, we saw they couldn't handle it."
Also key to the pressure's success was 6-foot-7 center Jeff Schwalm. When Schwalm left the game late in the first quarter with two fouls, the Panthers were able to inbound the ball easily. But when Schwalm returned to start the second half, his lanky arms prevented the Panthers from making eye-to-eye contact.
"When Jeff came back in, we were able to put pressure on the ball coming out of bounds, and that caused some problems for them," Edwards said. "If you press a team enough, they'll find a way to break it, and sure enough [Potomac Falls] did. So we had to change something."
CAPTION: Potomac Falls's DeMario McCleary (3) stands ground against Derrick Chew of Park View, which scored 14 in a row to open the second half in the semifinals of the Loudoun Times-Mirror Holiday Basketball Classic.