In the preseason Centennial coach Jim Hill said, "We're sort of an unknown commodity right now, so it is hard to say where we'll finish. Most people probably will discount us."
Two games into the season, any team that discounts Centennial will be making a serious mistake.
After defeating C. Milton Wright by two points in its opener, Centennial took a powerful Thomas Johnson squad to the wire yesterday before losing, 59-54.
Centennial rallied in the second half after trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half.
With five seconds left, Centennial trailed, 57-54, and had its best free-throw shooter at the line for three shots.
But Doug Ulman, an 85 percent free-throw shooter, missed all three. Thomas Johnson's Jason Williams made two free throws to end the scoring.
Thomas Johnson had beaten Oakland Mills in its opener, 95-91, in overtime.
"They probably took us lightly," Hill said. "We rose to the occasion today and played well, but we're going to get much better. We're young. At one point we had three sophomores and two juniors on the floor."
The Eagles also played without their best shooter, Dave Kontaxis, who has a sore knee.
Centennial still shot well, making 23 of 45 attempts -- most from short range. The Eagles made only two three-point shots.
Sophomore Matt Laycock, playing his first varsity game, led the team with 16 points and more than lived up to Hill's preseason praise.
"I was nervous because it was my first game, it was at home and it was against TJ," Laycock said. "I didn't know how good we would be, but we gave them a good game."
Centennial's pressing defense was impressive from the start. It made Thomas Johnson work to get the ball downcourt and created 16 turnovers.
It also held a tall Thomas Johnson squad below 50 percent shooting (19 for 40).
Terrance Morris, Thomas Johnson's 6-foot-7 sophomore, scored 14, but just two in the fourth quarter. And 6-4 Jason Williams, the Patriots' best player, was held to 11 points.
But Tom Praesel burned Centennial by scoring six of the Patriots' final eight points.
Hill had written a scouting report on a blackboard in the locker room before the game that said Praesel can drive. That report proved correct. Praesel made two impressive driving baskets, giving Thomas Johnson a 53-52 lead and then a 55-54 lead with 1:27 left.
After Ulman (11 points) missed a shot, Thomas Johnson spread the court with 1:01 to play, and Praesel sank two free throws with 22 seconds left to make it 57-54.
Thomas Johnson made 18 of 28 free throws. Centennial went to the line only 12 times and made six.