ROCKVILLE — In 1998, the underdog Gaithersburg Trojans varsity boys basketball team prepared to face the Oxon Hill Clippers in the state championship game. Facing a 16-point deficit at halftime, the Trojans came back, and five overtimes later, became state champions. Gaithersburg hasn’t come close since, not even winning regional.
Gaithersburg didn’t take a lead until the fourth quarter, but when the Trojans finally pulled ahead, they didn’t look back as they narrowly defeated the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Barons, 65-61.
“It’s the culmination of an entire season,” Gaithersburg head coach Jeff Holda said. “Being a coach in this program for 12 years, and knowing that it’s been 20 years since our last trip there, it means the world to me.”
B-CC started out hot, especially point guard Elijah Wood, who played well in the first half. The Barons got themselves into foul trouble with Miles English and Thomas Baer, but they were able to stay on the front foot and go up 27-18 in the second quarter. As the game went into halftime, B-CC had a 33-27 lead, led by 12 first-half points and eight rebounds from Elijah Wood.
Gaithersburg didn’t play up to their ability in the first half, they needed a spark.
“I yelled at them at halftime.” Holda said. “I just said, ‘You’re not playing the way that we normally play, but you’re just not playing like you want to win…I saw a change in the third quarter. The effort was there.”
Gaithersburg quickly managed to cut the B-CC lead down to one point in the third quarter, but each time Gaithersburg made a run, English answered for the Barons. B-CC closed the third quarter on a 9-2 run, and headed to the fourth quarter with a 50-42 lead.
“Stop by stop, make a couple plays and we are going to win this,” Gaithersburg senior Julio Tamakloe said to his teammates at the start of the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, the Trojans sent into the game 14-year-old freshman Jao Ituka, nicknamed “Black Panther” by his teammates. Determined to reign in the deficit, Ituka and Tamakloe did just that. The two combined for 13 points in the fourth.
With 2:18 left in the game, Trojans’ freshman Jordan Hawkins tied the game at 56, and on the ensuing possession, Jordan Graham hit a three-pointer to give the Trojans a 59-56 lead, their first lead of the game. Thomas Baer answered right back with a trey for the Barons to tie the game.
After Baer’s three-point shot, however, B-CC went stone cold in the most crucial moments of the game.
Tamakloe hit a floater with 39.8 seconds left to put the Trojans up by two, a lead they would not relinquish.
After a timeout, B-CC nearly turned the ball over, but were able to call another timeout. On the ensuing inbound, Ituka read the pass, jumped, and intercepted the ball. 10.2 seconds left. The game was sealed.
Ituka, who first picked up a basketball only three years ago, scored 17 points in the Gaithersburg win, and made the game-sealing steal. Tamakloe scored 18, including six in the fourth quarter.
“I really wanted to win regionals,” Tamakloe said. “I hate losing, so I tried to do whatever I could to win.”
Gaithersburg was a five seed in the playoffs last year, and lost in the first round. They brought back only two players who had meaningful minutes on varsity last year. Now, they are regional champs for the first time in 20 years. The team’s three seniors have provided important leadership on a young team, but the impact of both Ituka and Hawkins, the top two leading scorers, cannot be understated.
Gaithersburg will face in the semifinals Thursday defending 4A state champions, the Perry Hall Gators, at the Xfinity Center with a trip to the state final on the line.
“This is not our goal,” Ituka said. “Our goal is to win states.”