The memories won’t soon go away: the sun, surf, touring Universal Studios and enjoying T-shirt weather in the days leading up to Christmas.
There also were tough times for the Vanguard boys’ basketball team while playing more than 1,800 miles from home at the KSA Events Classic in Orlando, Fla. The Coursers lost their first two games after blowing double-digit leads before coming away with an overtime win in the tourney finale on Dec. 22.
So when Vanguard returned to the court Friday against St. Mary’s, it hoped those experiences would prevent repeating those mistakes.
Dominique Clifford scored a game-high 25 points to lead three scorers in double figures, and the Coursers built a 14-point lead in the first half and then held off a second-half St. Mary’s surge in a 89-79 Tri-Peaks League victory.
When Clifford looked up at the scoreboard and saw his team with a slim, 56-53 lead late in the third quarter, the junior recalled what transpired two weeks before.
“I told the team ‘This is the same thing we saw in Orlando,’ “ Clifford said. “We had to keep that in mind so we don’t have that same feeling. In all three of our games out there, we were up by 20, and we lost the lead every time.”
Not against St. Mary’s.
Vanguard (6-2, 3-0 after an 80-35 win at Ellicott on Saturday) didn’t lose the lead in this one, hitting enough key shots down the stretch combined with 13 free throws over the final 4:53 to secure the win.
“When we went down and were playing those teams in Florida, we wanted to be in a situation where we had to find a way to win the game at the end,” said 10th-year Coursers coach Joe Wetters, who earned his 100th victory at the school with the league triumph. “We didn’t get that in two of the three games there. We had leads and we gave them away. Definitely in the huddle tonight, we were saying to each other ‘Remember what happened.’ And all of the guys really responded.”
In the tournament opener on Dec. 20, Vanguard couldn’t hold a 15-point, second-half lead to Seneca (Ky.), surrendering 20 of the game’s final 27 points in a 70-66 loss. The next day, Dunbar (Fla.) outscored the Coursers 24-14 in the fourth quarter to earn a seven-point victory.
Vanguard rallied for a consolation-round win on Dec. 22, rallying in overtime after earlier blowing an 18-point lead.
“Before, we were taking too many forced, quick shots,” Wetters said. “We didn’t make them play defense for long possessions. Tonight, we extended out the possessions and didn’t make one pass and try to shoot. We made them foul us and shot free throws instead of us shooting a shot we weren’t going to make. The guards did a terrific job possessing the ball, holding on to it and getting to the free-throw line.”
Senior Seth Fuqua added 22 points, including 10 free throws in the second half, and Joseph Padilla added 17 for Vanguard, which led 32-18 early in the second quarter before a 12-0 St. Mary’s run made it a two-point game.
The Coursers stretched the margin to nine by halftime, then saw a 56-45 advantage reduced to three points after eight straight Pirates points.
“We can get the lead in the first half,” Clifford said. “But we tend to let the other team chip it down. Going to play those teams in Florida is going to help us in the future to keep leads and sustaining them. I think we saw those lessons learned tonight.”
Wetters’ only regret? Not having a trip like this when he was in high school.
“I’ve thought about this since I was 16 years old,” Wetters said. “I always wanted to do that when I was a kid, and I thought we have a great team and wanted to play some of the big boys. I knew we could earn the money (a total of $24,000 was needed) and the kids were ready to work for it. I wanted to give this to them, so when they’re 41, they can say ‘Hey, we did this and we didn’t miss out on anything.’”
Now, the Coursers hope to use the painful Florida memories to forge different results closer to home as the season transitions into league play and a deep playoff run later.
“The biggest thing for us is that this trip made everyone on our team a lot better,” Clifford said. “Going 1-2 was frustrating, but we won’t play teams like that out here. Plus, I think we grew as a team and made our chemistry a lot better. We bond a lot more now, and that helps on and off the court.”