As the Seneca Valley fans rushed the court after Friday night’s thrilling 61-59 3A West Region Championship victory, senior Deonte Nelson was at the scorer’s table, resting his head on his arm, bend over in quiet thought as the Seneca Valley world celebrated behind him. Nelson could have been praying or giving thanks for this wonderful moment; the huge high for a kid whose high school basketball career began from the deepest of lows.
As Seneca celebrated, maybe the senior guard was thinking about his first two seasons as a Screaming Eagle. Two season in which the program has just one win. As Nelson’s sophomore basketball season came to a close, he experienced victory just once, a 91-89 victory over Northwood. As a young player, on a 1-41 team, perhaps the younger Nelson could not imagine a scenario where he would be a part of one of the final four teams playing for a Maryland State Championship. Perhaps as a senior, Nelson needed to get in touch with that sophomore inside him from two years ago, and let him it was all worth it.
Friday night’s victory didn’t erase those early seasons, but it certainly makes those memories easier to hold on too.
“These kids deserve it. Not just the players but our student body,” said Seneca Valley Athletic Director Jesse Irvin after Friday’s victory. “If you look at where this program was just two years ago. Some of these kids are now seniors that had to go through the 40 game losing streak. Who would have thought during those seasons that they would have experienced this. But, what I love about this team is they are not satisfied with this, they are ready to move and win it all.”
Friday night’s victory, which came in front of a raucous sold-out crowd, did not come easy. While the Eagles did start strong by jumping out to an early lead, it was clear from the first basket that Seneca was going to play a different type of game.
The first basket was scored by sophomore Triston Price on free throws just seconds into the game. It would be shots from the free-throw line that would be the difference, and Price’s steady hand at the line would prove an inspiration. He would hit the first two free throws in the first quarter, and he would sink five more late in the fourth quarter to keep the Eagles in the lead.
With 5:26 remaining in the second quarter, Seneca Valley enjoyed a 12 point lead over Tuscarora, but that lead would evaporate as the 20-4 Titans tightened their defense. They got four huge three-point shots from senior Rhashad Johnson, two in the second and two in the third to close the gap. Johnson would finish with 18 points to lead the Titans.
The Eagles signature all year has been good defense leading to offensive scoring. “All season our defense has led to our offense. When our offense is stalling a bit, we try to turn up the defensive pressure and make them see a different look,” said Seneca’s Head Coach Brian Humphrey. In the fourth quarter, the Eagles switched to a 1-3-1 zone, and it seemed to throw off the Titan’s offensive rhythm. “They were hitting deep jumpers. They did a good job of adjusting. They have some big long athletes that were excellent who are excellent at shot blocking and keeping us out of the paint. In the 1-3-1 zone, we tried to make sure that we had one person that always came out to guard [Johnson], but he wanted it just as bad as we did and he was making big plays.”
Tuscarora would tie the game at 37 with 3:39 remaining in the third on a layup by junior Jaylen Washington. The teams would trade buckets until Johnson hit is fourth three-ball to give the Titans the lead 41-43 with 1:40 in the third.
Seneca’s Deonte Nelson would tie the game with a jumper with 35.9 left in the third to send the game in the final period all even at 43.
One minute and four seconds into the fourth period, Tuscarora’s senior Isaiah Tillman would get fouled on a layup. He would make both foul shots to give the Titans their first lead of the game with 6:56 remaining. The lead would change hands five more times in the last period.
“We try to have three things we teach every day,” said Humphrey. “The last thing we talked about was playing in the present and staying in the moment. We knew they were going to make a run. They are a very good team. They were hitting threes; that’s what they’ve done all year. During the timeouts we talked about staying in the moment and that the next play is the most important.”
Seneca would regain the lead on two foul shots from Price and extend it to six points, 51-45 on an old-fashioned three-point play when junior Kareem Matthew was fouled going for a layup and layup by senior Quentin Twyman.
They have worked on getting the ball to Twyman down low, but very few of Twyman’s 17 points came from that “sweet spot.” Tuscarora either forced the big man to shoot from outside or forced him to the line.
“Q is an excellent scoring player,” said Humphrey. “He has grown so much over the last few years. In my opinion, he is the best low-post player in the county. Tuscarora did a good job of taking away his opportunities by doubling him or forcing him off the block, but he found other ways to score. He got some offensive rebounds and kept plays alive. He just kept battling.”
After missing his first three foul shots, the Twyman said that he had to adjust his thinking.
“We work hard every day in practice on free throws,” said Twyman after the game. “Early in the game, I wasn’t making my free-throws. I was worried.” He would make five of his last six shots from the line. He credited Price and Kareem Matthew with stepping up and making their foul shots, as inspiration to get his shot straight. “I saw my teammates making their foul shots, and I thought to myself, ‘this is just like practice.’ My teammates are playing for me, and I knew I had to play for my team.”
Tuscarora would hit one free throw and then take the lead back on a pair of three-pointers from senior guard Myles Belton. The Titans led 53-55 with 2:22 remaining and the Tuscarora faithful going crazy in the corner of the gym.
But the lead would not last, Twyman would hit another foul shot, and miss the second shot which was tipped in by junior Brandon Simpson to give the Eagles the lead back 56-55 with 2:02 to play. Tuscarora's Tillman would answer at the other end again with a short range jumper, 56-57 Titans with 1:42 remaining.
It would be sophomore Tristan Price to give the lead back to Seneca Valley by driving the lane and getting fouled, and making two shots with 49.3 seconds remaining. Price would again come up big 33 seconds later when he drew another foul. The 15-year-old sophomore would make the first of two foul shots to give the Eagles the lead for good 59-57 with 16.3 seconds remaining.
“Last year we lost to Linganore by six in the regional final,” said Price. “As a freshman, I didn’t understand the importance of that game. I didn’t want it ever to happen again. We came together as a team, and we said it wasn’t going to happen again. This win streak — this team means so much to me.”
“He is still young. I love him so much as a player,” said Humphrey about Price. “He clearly put his heart on the line. He may be the world’s fastest person. He can get to end line to end line faster than anybody. Kareem Matthews got into foul trouble, and we had to use Triston a lot, and he did a really nice job.”
Price’s second shot would miss, but be grabbed by Twyman, who was immediately fouled. The senior stepped up and drilled two from the charity stripe to deliver Seneca Valley into the Maryland State Division 3A Final Four Championship Tournament. The Eagles led 61-57 with 14.1 remaining. The Titans would add another layup but time would expire, and the Seneca Valley gym would erupt as the fans stormed the court to celebrate with their team.
“It was amazing,” said Twyman of the post-game celebration, which included cutting down the nets in the Seneca Valley gym. “I have never seen Seneca Valley get this loud. I am happy I can be a part of it.”
Seneca Valley will play the winner of the Centennial /Stephen Decatur game. That game will be played at the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center on Thursday, March 10 at 5:00 pm. The winner of Thursday’s game will play for the Maryland 3A State Championship on Saturday, March 12.
Top: The 2015-2016 3A West Regional Champion Seneca Valley Screaming Eagles
Next: Seneca Valley senior Deonte Nelson supports himself against the scorer’s table in a quiet moment of celebration as his teammates are swarmed by fans at the end of Friday’s game.
Video: The final 12 seconds of play and pandemonium at the Seneca Valley gym as the Screaming Eagles win the 3A West Regional Championship.
Photo Gallery: Cutting down the Nets.
Next: Seneca Valley sophomore Triston Price (12) defends Tuscarora’s Shawn Blaney (23) early in Friday’s game.
Next: Senior Quentin Twyman (11) with a short range jumper. He would finish with 17 points.Next: Tuscarora’s Isaiah Tillman (12) made points difficult to come by for the Screaming Eagles. Here he gets a piece of a Kareem Matthews (4) shot.
Next: Seneca’s Tyran Crawford (5) attempts to knock a rebound out the hands of Tuscarora’s Jaylen Washington (21).
Next: Senior Deonte Nelson (1) drills a long-range jump shot to tie the game at the end of the third quarter.
Next: Junior Brandon Simpson (3) tips in a missed foul shot by Quentin Twyman (11) to allow the Eagles to regain the lead with 2:03 remaining.
Next: Triston Price at the line with 49.3 seconds remaining. He would drain five of six foul shots in the fourth quarter to help the Eagles defeat Tuscarora.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.