No lead is really safe when you are playing at Oakland Mills, a gymnasium the Scorpions and their vociferous fans sometimes refer to as the Terror Dome.
So when Loyola opened the third quarter Wednesday night with a seven-point run and built a 15-point bulge, 35-20, Dons' coach Jerry Savage was not relaxing.
"We knew it was only a matter of time before they came at us," he said.
"We hadn't realized how strong a team they were going to have this year."
It wasn't quite strong enough, however, as the Dons got some clutch foul shooting from Mike Smith and Paul Howard (20 points) in the second half to pull out a 61-59 victory. It was the season opener for both teams.
Smith (12 points), Loyola's only returning starter, went five-for-seven at the line in the fourth quarter, when he scored nine points. His two free throws with 13 seconds left put Loyola up, 61-57.
"We stuck it at the foul line down the stretch," Savage said. "That was the difference."
Loyola, which has beaten Oakland Mills five times in the last six meetings, beat the Scorpions last year with a fantastic 29-for-36 at the foul line.
This year the Dons were only 11-for-21 at halftime, but went nine-for-11 in the second half.
Oakland Mills made eight-for-12 in the first half and only nine-for-18 in the second half.
The defending Class 3A champs unveiled a squad that looks like it could again challenge for a state title.
"I'm not unhappy with their effort," Coach Dave Appleby said. "We played better in the second half and showed flashes of what we'll be. We'll just get better and better and build on this."
Several costly mental lapses led to Loyola layups, and the Scorpions missed a couple of layups off fast breaks.
"Our comeback was impressive, but we just couldn't get over the hump," Appleby said.
Oakland Mills' rally began after Loyola's 6-foot-6 Steve Kraning (15 points) sank a three-point shot. Kraning hit two three-pointers during the game and displayed a deadly outside shot for someone so tall.
But Oakland Mills outscored Loyola 12-2 after Kraning's basket. Joe Coughlan (four points) and Carruthers Gant (16 points) each scored two baskets during the run, as the Scorpions really turned up the defensive intensity.
They also started pounding the offensive boards, with 6-5 Greg Washington (16 points) and 6-5 Mark Terry (11 points) doing some major damage.
Washington's rebound basket off a missed free throw closed the gap to 39-36.
Then the sensational junior, who averaged 15 points a game last year for the junior varsity team, stole the ball and slam-dunked all alone at the other end, making it 39-38.
Oakland Mills almost went ahead before the quarter ended, but another steal and fast break ended in a missed layup by Gant. Gant, although he scored 16 points, had a poor shooting night, frequently missing open shots.
Washington scored on a rebound and sank a free throw to start the fourth quarter, putting Oakland Mills ahead for the first time since the first quarter, 41-39.
With Oakland Mills at the foul line, Washington was called for a lane violation before a shot was even taken, a costly mental lapse that turned the ball over to Loyola.
Loyola then scored nine straight points, taking a 48-41 lead, before Gant broke the string with two free throws.
The run proved insurmountable despite another Oakland Mills rally led by Terry.
Terry, scoreless through three quarters, came to life in the fourth quarter, when he scored 11 points. But Oakland Mills never got closer than two points again.
Travis Williams missed two front ends of one-and-ones in the final minute with the Scorpions trailing, 59-57. And Washington missed a turnaround jumper off a rebound that could have tied it.
"We have some major talent, but we just have to get it playing together," Appleby said. "We had Kelly Sykes unable to play because of a sprained ankle, and he's going to be a big guy off the bench for us. And Coughlan fouling out with seven minutes to go hurt."
Scorpion fans shouldn't despair at the loss. Oakland Mills lost only two games last year, when it won its first state championship. One was to Loyola, 69-64 -- the first game of the season.