On the verge of a four-game road stretch and vying for Howard County supremacy, the Oakland Mills boys basketball team is peaking at the perfect time.
Yesterday at home, the Scorpions earned their sixth victory in seven games, 59-55, over Howard.
Oakland Mills led the entire game. But the Lions sliced a 15-point third-quarter lead to three, 58-55, on Javier Michaux's free throw with 1:27 left.
Howard's Aaron Graf missed a baseline shot with 13 seconds left, however, and Antoine Barnes' free throw clinched the victory.
The Scorpions improved to 8-8 overall and 6-3 in a clouded county race for first place that features No. 19 Centennial, No. 20 Glenelg and Hammond.
And with road games to come against Centennial, Mount Hebron, Glenelg and Hammond, respectively, Oakland Mills has positioned itself well for a sixth consecutive county crown.
"It's about the best situation we could get," Scorpions coach Dave Appleby said. "We don't have any major injuries, we don't have anything to disrupt us. We're playing real well and it's a matter of going to the other gym and applying it."
Before the Howard game, Appleby wanted to neutralize the Lions' front line, which is composed of leading scorers Michaux (6 feet 3), Jeremy Milam (6-4) and Dwight Case (6-2).
Michaux scored a game-high 25 points, but Milam (10) and Case (four) were limited.
At the same time, Oakland Mills' front line of 6-2 Michael Hill (22), 6-2 Chad Barr (15) and 6-1 Antoine Barnes (14) combined to score all but eight of the Scorpions' points.
"Our three kids clearly gave us an advantage on the inside tonight -- that was the key to the game," Appleby said.
Hill, a sophomore forward, scored eight points in the first quarter, during which the Scorpions shot 8-for-11 for a 17-10 edge. He had 14 by halftime, as Oakland Mills held a 31-23 lead.
The Scorpions scored the first six points of the third quarter. Barnes' basket 2:16 into the quarter capped the run, and left Howard (7-10, 4-5) with its largest deficit, 38-23.
"Coach [Appleby] told us if we don't jump out to a big lead, we'd have a hard time coming back," Barnes said. "They jumped out to a big lead" in the first game, an eight-point Howard triumph.
Michaux nearly spoiled the effort, though. With the score 38-27, the junior forward scored Howard's final 11 points in the quarter, which ended 50-38.
Resorting to an aggressive style on offense and defense, the Lions opened the final quarter with a 14-6 run to make it 56-52. Michaux's steal and emphatic one-handed dunk with 2:10 left ended the run.
Barnes answered, but Milam's basket and Michaux's free throw created a tense, three-point game.