It was only fitting that Saturday night's showdown between Dunbar High and St. Anthony of Jersey City, N.J., in the Charm City Classic came down to a stellar defensive play.
Dunbar, the nation's No. 1 team according to USA Today, and St. Anthony, ranked No. 3, both turned in outstanding defensive efforts before a sellout crowd of 4,553 at the Towson Center before the Poets prevailed, 50-49.
In the end, Dunbar's 6-foot-6 All-American center Donta Bright denied St. Anthony's 6-7 All-American center Rodrick Rhodes a three-point attempt with the Poets leading by 50-47 and time running out.
After Bright made two free throws to give the Poets (16-0) a 50-47 lead with 19 seconds left, St. Anthony (11-1) went to Rhodes for a three-point try.
Rhodes, who had hit three of five three-point attempts, got the ball at the top of the three-point arc, but Bright's defensive
pressure forced Rhodes to drive inside for a short jumper with three seconds left. Dunbar's Keith Booth let the remaining time tick off the clock without inbounding the ball.
"I knew it was coming to him," said Bright, who was named the tournament's most valuable player. "I didn't want him to shoot the three, so I stayed up on him and forced him inside."
The much-anticipated matchup between Bright and Rhodes, close friends who once considered attending the same college, lost some of its luster when Bright picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter. Poets coach Pete Pompey quickly put Booth on Rhodes.
Both players scored 22 points to lead all scorers, but this was not a night for offense. Both teams used aggressive man-to-man defense that kept the opposing offenses off balance.
"This is the best team we've played this season," Pompey said. "We wanted to push up on them and not slack up. We knew Rodrick would be their man, and we didn't make any special changes for him."
Dunbar's victory extended the Poets' win streak to 39 games and ended St. Anthony's win streak at 40. The Poets also denied St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley his 500th career victory and beat a nationally ranked opponent for the ninth time this season.
"They've done an incredible job," Pompey said. "For the challenges they've faced, it's a credit to them."
The Poets may not face another opponent ranked in USA Today's Super 25, although Friday night at Morgan State (8 p.m.), they face what may be their toughest local foe in Southern. The Bulldogs, rated No. 2 locally, are ranked No. 24 by The Associated Press, which also ranks Dunbar No. 1.
The Bulldogs fell behind and in its losses to St. Anthony and St. Raymond's, and fell short with fourth-quarter comebacks in both. Coach Meredith Smith said that perhaps his team was too caught up in achieving a national ranking.
"All the media stressed about the fact we weren't nationally ranked; maybe all that hype had an influence," said Smith. "This is disappointing for me in the fact that we could have been successful if we had gotten more leadership. Our leadership never came to the front."
And left Smith to go with his youngsters for most of the final quarter in Saturday's loss to St. Raymond's. With four sophomores and a senior on the court, Southern cut a deficit of 20 to six.
"Right now, we're not a good catch-up team because we're inexperienced," said sophomore point guard Damon Cason, who scored 22 Saturday and was named to the all-tournament team. "But most of the sophomores had a lot of time last year, and we feel we can play with anybody."