For Old Mill, it’s a lot more real. The Patriots are just one game away of turning that puff of smoke into a tangible state champion banner because even when winning seemed unlikely, the Patriots kept battling.
“They’ve been finding a way to do that,” Patriots coach Rick Smith said, “especially in the big games.”
Old Mill overcame a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter, as well as a last-second shot attempt that would have sent the game to overtime, to edge Bethesda-Chevy Chase, 57-55, at SECU Arena, punching its ticket to the Class 4A state final to face Charles H. Flowers on Saturday at 3 p.m.
“It’d be an honor,” Smith said. “I’m happy for the girls…To be coaching a state championship team, that’d be great. Pat told me, ‘Hang a banner.’ That’s what we want to do, Saturday.”
Smith knew before the season even started that, on paper, this Old Mill team should have been good.
“It took two or three games before we realized as coaches that these guys were every bit as good as we thought they were,” Smith said. “That if they played together — like they did the last three or four big games — that this was doable. That we could go this far.”
Leading that effort to keep going far were junior Deja Atkinson and senior Sydney Faulcon, who each tallied 13 points. Faulcon led the bunch with 12 rebounds.
Old Mill’s future, for most of the game, was cloudy. Though the Patriots nipped constantly at the heels of the Barons (18-9), even taking a fragile lead at a few points, Bethesda never seemed to lose control. When Destiny Galloway (11 points) popped her 3-pointer in the second quarter, for instance, to take a three-point advantage, the Barons replied with back-to-back treys from Caroline Orza and Merete Cowles. When Atkinson flipped a pass to senior Briana White to take a one-point lead, Bethesda’s Stephanie Howell converted her own layup and stole from Old Mill right after.
Orza, the Patriots had prepared for, poring over film all week. The sophomore guard did not disappoint, adding a team-high nine rebounds to accompany her 21 points. It was the rest of the team that served a bit of a surprise.
“We didn’t think they had that many girls who could shoot as well as they did,” Smith said. “It seemed every one, at one point or another, seemed to have a decent shot.”
The Barons had prepared for Old Mill, too — specifically Faulcon.
They’d organized their defense for her specifically, Bethesda coach Ryan Ingalls said, setting up zone to limit her opportunities. In the first half, the 6-foot-2 center struggled at post as the Bethesda guards swarmed her, tapping the chances for putbacks out of her hands.
“My guards saw it,” Faulcon said. “We talked about it during our timeouts and just kept our head in the game, not get too worried about it.”
One of those guards, Galloway, kept working in the paint as this was all happening. At the last three seconds of the third quarter, Galloway drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put Old Mill back by just one, 37-36.
The worst of it, though, was yet to come. Orza added to the Barons’ shooting extravaganza early in the fourth quarter, running an 12-5 period broken up only by Faulcon’s field goals and a free throw.
Down by seven, the Patriots had to decide then if they wanted to crumble and head back to Millersville as yet another Old Mill team that suffered the end of its season in the state semifinal.
No. This Old Mill team decided just to turn up the intensity.
First, Galloway stripped Bethesda of the ball and earned a pair of foul shots off of it, which she made. Then, Mikiyah Mallet (10 points) and Atkinson each clipped the Barons with a pair of steals. Mallet dropped in a layup, a free throw — and, of course, picked up another steal.
“I knew we needed a steal and to turn up the intensity on defense,” Mallet said. “That’s something key that I do, so I played my role.”
Every success electrified the Patriots even more. Bethesda noticed. Howell called them the most aggressive team they’d seen.
“When they would fire each other up, it was hard to come back from that,” Orza said. “They played well together and they knew what they were trying to do — get the ball inside to Faulcon.”
Faulcon’s putback tied it at 48. When the ball fell to Galloway, she stopped at the perimeter and gazed up at the net.
All week, she’d been practicing. Her 0 for 5 3-pointer record against South River in the region final had been uncharacteristic of the senior who’d only been improving her trey-shooting all winter.
In this moment, that couldn’t happen again — so it didn’t. When Galloway’s ball landed in the basket, a grin broke over her face and she danced a little as the Old Mill crowd screamed.
Atkinson hit 5 of 6 free throws to put Old Mill up 56-52; Mallet’s foul shot pushed it to 57. From then on, it was her game to bear. After Barons guard Lily Roberson closed the gap to two with a long shot, Bethesda earned possession with just nine seconds remaining. Orza rushed the basket for an offensive rebound that could have been the equalizer, but Mallet pushed it out of reach and wrestled it to her body. She held it as the last seconds disappeared, the buzzer sounded and the glass flashed red.
The Patriots plan to cram in as much information about Flowers as they can before Saturday afternoon. They started on Thursday, soaking in their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses from their seats.
Nothing they saw made them afraid.
“I have faith in us,” Faulcon said. “I think we are ready. We just have to practice it tomorrow and stay focused in practice and keep the intensity.”