COLLEGE PARK, MD - When New Town faced Douglass in Maryland State Playoff action in 2022, the Titans walked away crushed, narrowly losing in heartbreaking fashion. It was a rough time for New Town Basketball.
The Titans learned from the setback, using it and other battle testing to improve before forcing their way through the season. Ultimately, coach Derick Wise’s crew ended up competing for the Maryland 2A title versus a young, talented Largo on Thursday.
Thirty-two minutes after tip off, the Titans had avenged their previous setback, dispatching the Lions, 64-57.
Experience was crucial.
"We've got a senior leadership group that just didn't blink," said Wise of what put his team over the hump. "We've been in situations before. We just found a way to win.”
Being a coach whose mantra is "we don't run from anyone", Wise intentionally stressed his team by playing top competition, a tactic he learned from former Towson Catholic and New Town coaching legend, Mike Daniels.
"We play the best, [and] want to schedule the best,” he said. “I think that's an opportunity to get seasoned, so when we get in situations like this, we won't waver."
His soon-to-be graduates didn't waiver: Cam Sparrow led the Titans in scoring and assists with 17 points and six dimes, plus tied for its rebounding top mark at nine.
"In the first quarter, I just wanted to get to it, this being my last high school game," Sparrow said.
Senior forward Jaden Brown (15 points, six rebounds), guard Arrington Greenfield (12 points) and forward Jamal Price (who equaled Sparrow on the boards while scoring 11 points) all exemplify the impact of New Town's old guys. Cam Kirkland, a guard, rounds out the main senior impact guys, logging seven points and boards.
All made multiple contributions, including guard Jamal Sulieman. For instance Sparrow smoothly canned two game-sealing free throws with 22.3 seconds remaining after missing several previously.
He credited preparation, noting, "That's something we practice, and I've been practicing. Free throws at the end of practice, free throws in the middle of practice at water breaks. And that paid off today. I missed the first two, saw the way the rim was, made a small adjustment, and the last three went in."
Largo was paced in scoring by sophomore guard Cam Ward's game-best 19 points, 12 caroms, and three steals. He clearly was a problem, one Wise et al respected and was defensive target number one for the Titans.
"We wanted to front him if he posted, to kind of get it out of his hands,” Wise said of Ward. “He did a great job of finding teammates, guys were dropping spots all around him.
"We did what we could, we wrestled with him. But like I said he's a good player...we got stops when we needed to."
Freshman guard Jalen Johnson dropped 11 points, six rebounds, freshman guard Christian Ware logged nine points and a team-high four helpers. Senior guard and two-sport standout (football) Andre King contributed eight points for Largo.
While experience made a huge difference, adjustments mattered as well. Many were made by both teams.
For example: Largo deployed a 1-3-1 matchup zone within the last minute of play, temporarily stunning the Titans. Also, their pressure defense was a thorn in New Town’s side when deployed.
"It helped us out," recalled Largo coach Rodney Ward of that zone specifically, though he lamented "You have to rebound out of it,” which the Lions failed to do when it counted the most.
Wise on the other hand, dabbled with a 1-2-2 zone periodically - "I wanted to throw something at them to stop their momentum, so we can kind of...get back in the game" he said.
Early on he assigned Kirkland to hound Largo's fast point guard Ware, who initially sped around helping the Lions turn a nine-point deficit into their one point, early second quarter advantage.
Ware acknowledged the tactic which did stun Largo, but drilled down on how his teammates prepared him to face such challenges.
"Our practices are probably harder than any game,” he said. “So I just played my game".
Rodney Ward called his team's 2022-23 campaign "a great journey", one in which his players took over ownership of the team with success resulting.
A marker of that buy-in and cohesiveness was when a player didn't have a ride to Saturday practice and "Another player wired him some money for an Uber," Coach Ward recalled, adding at that point he knew great things could happen. Their final record stands 21-7.
New Town, now 26-3, will be dramatically reconfigured next season due to graduation and will look to reload. Largo brings most of its team back. Both coaches believe their programs should be viewed on par with any high school team, public or private.
"We have the ability to play with any and everybody," Wise proudly stated, while Rodney Ward exclaimed, "We're running our race, but it's there" for kids at Largo, with him noting coaches visiting, competing with and against good talent in a space where they can play and develop. "They get the same experience."
Expect both schools to be successful going forward.