The South Carroll boys' basketball team had been to the Comcast Center before. But they had never been part of such an unusual strategy.
On Friday night, the Cavaliers' third state semifinal appearance in four years ended with a 46-34 loss to Baltimore City power Lake Clifton. Coach Doug Goff's squad came out ready to run against the Lakers, but that wasn't Lake Clifton's idea.
After taking a 14-11 lead into the second quarter, the Lakers held the ball for nearly an entire quarter, content to wait until the Cavaliers pulled out of its 2-3 zone defense.
While the Cavaliers stayed in the zone, coach Herman Harried's team turned the ball over on its final possession of the quarter and South Carroll junior forward Ryan McTavish canned a three-pointer with just four seconds remaining to send the Cavaliers into the locker room tied at 14-14 and their fans, who had booed Lake Clifton's strategy loudly, into a frenzy.
It wasn't the first time a Goff-coached squad had faced the slowdown. When he was coaching Lansdowne against Southern of Baltimore City in a regional final nine years ago, his opponent held the ball for the entire third quarter and part of the fourth.
"I didn't expect it that early," said Goff of the Lakers' strategy. "I didn't consider coming out of it (the zone) at that time of the game. The strategy made it tougher on us.
"I don't blame them for doing what they thought they had to do to win," he said. "But we had the momentum when Gavin hit that three."
Harried's decision to stall was perplexing, given that the Lakers were more athletic and quicker than the Cavaliers. Lake Clifton had finished a tight, competitive first quarter with a 7-2 run, capped by James Boone's three-pointer and subsequent foul shot with no time remaining that gave the Lakers a three-point lead.
"Coach told us to stay packed in and keep our focus," said McTavish. "If we lost focus, then something could have gone wrong for us."
Harried felt that the slowdown strategy helped his team, and he didn't care about the reaction.
"We've done it before," said Harried, the former Dunbar High and Syracuse University standout who has guided the Laker program to three state championships in his 15 years. "I thought our kids did a great job of showing that they were very coachable. They did what I asked them to do.
"I looked at our players and didn't see any doubt or concern. When we went to the locker room (at halftime), their intensity was still up," he said. "That's probably the longest that we've held the ball, and it won't be the last if we have to."
In the third quarter, the Lakers looked more like the team that averaged more than 75 points a game in regional playoff victories over Chesapeake-Baltimore County, Owings Mills and Edmondson. A short jumper by McTavish gave South Carroll a two-point advantage less than a minute into the quarter, but Lake Clifton scored six unanswered points midway through the period to take the lead for good.
Junior forward Cortell Henson hit a 15-foot jumper to start the Laker burst, which ended when senior forward Aaron Parks converted a turnaround jumper that extended Lake Clifton's lead to 22-17.
But the Cavaliers closed to 24-22 on senior guard Dan Mullen's jumper in the final minute.
Two free throws by the Lakers' Lionel Greene with four seconds left started a game-deciding 15-4 run that gave Lake Clifton a comfortable 39-26 lead with just 2:59 left in the final quarter.
South Carroll closed to within 10 on senior forward Ryan Tate's two free throws with 1:43 left, but the Cavaliers couldn't make a final run. The Lakers put the game away at the foul line, making 14 of their 17 fourth-quarter free-throw attempts.
"It was a good year," said Mullen, a four-year starter who will play college basketball at Navy. "We lost some key guys from last season, but new players stepped in. We jelled and made a nice run. We have to be proud of what we did all season."
South Carroll, which finished with a 21-5 record, won its second consecutive Carroll County and Class 2A West Region titles.
The Lakers, who won previous state championships in 1995, 1999, and 2009, advanced to meet Largo in Saturday's final. The Largo Lions defeated 2011 state finalist Easton, 61-44, in the other Class 2A semifinal.
"We made it to Comcast, which is our ultimate goal," said Tate, who is being recruited by several NCAA Division III schools. "We gave ourselves an opportunity to win the state championship."
South Carroll was trying to reach the title game for the first time since 1989, but the Lakers' methodical offensive strategy restricted the Cavaliers' top offensive threats.
McTavish led all scorers with 16 points and also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, but the rest of the Cavaliers combined for just 18 total points. Tate contributed eight points, while Mullen capped an outstanding high school career with four points and two assists.