GAITHERSBURG – Survive and advance.
It’s March, so every game during the postseason is crucial, and the winners move a step closer to a state championship.
The Gaithersburg High School boys’ varsity basketball team overcame a six-point deficit on March 4 en route to an 81-70 home victory over Wootton in a 4A West sectional semifinal game, earning a berth to the regional semifinals. The win helps put the Trojans one step closer to completing their mission to get back to Xfinity Center for a state title after falling in the semifinals to eventual champion Perry Hall last year.
Sophomores Jao Ituka, Jordan Hawkins and Mandela Tarke combined to score the majority of Gaithersburg‘s points against Wootton. Ituka finished with a game-high 36 points, while Hawkins scored 26 points and Tarke added 10 points for the Trojans, who improved to 19-4.
On a personal note, Ituka reached the 1,000 career-point plateau in the win over the Patriots.
“It means a lot,” said Ituka. “It means hard work and dedication paid off. In two seasons, I was able to put the ball in the basket a lot.”
The chemistry between Ituka and Hawkins was evident throughout the game, especially in the second half. Hawkins was a terror in the third quarter, draining three-pointers and converting a steal into a slam dunk to give the Trojans a six-point advantage.
Ituka said he enjoys playing alongside Hawkins because it takes some pressure off him.
“I can always count on him to help the team out,” said Ituka. “Bail us out when we need to be bailed out, so that’s what’s important.”
Meanwhile, Wootton, who finished the season at 10-14, was led by the senior trio of Kevin Ayissi-Etoh, Harrison Cance and True Johnson.
Ayissi-Etoh, a senior who missed part of the season because of a leg injury, finished with a team-high 19 points for the Patriots, while Cance and Johnson each scored 13 points in a losing cause.
“Wootton is as good as any team in Montgomery County,” said Gaithersburg Head Coach Jeff Holda. “They’re talented. They’re well-coached. They’re tough. They have a lot of seniors with a lot of pride.”
The teams battled back and forth throughout the third quarter, but Gaithersburg had the upper hand before Ayissi-Etoh’s jump shot tied the game at 44-44, with 4:40 remaining in the period.
However, Wootton went on an 8-0 run in the third quarter that was bookended by Ayissi-Etoh’s long 3-pointer from NBA range and Ryan Mariani’s trey with 2:19 left to give the Patriots a seven-point advantage.
“They just didn’t quit,” said Ituka, who scored 26 points after intermission. “We thought we were just going to come in and blow their doors [off], but they fought back. They played tough. Kudos to them.”
Wootton led 57-51 at the end of the third period, but Gaithersburg clawed back.
Ituka and Hawkins both converted 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter, but Ituka’s three-point play with 6:01 remaining put Gaithersburg ahead, 61-59. Although Wootton managed to outscore the Trojans in the second and third quarters, the Trojans dominated the fourth period, 30-13.
“The fourth quarter we just started getting stops on defense,” said Holda. “We started talking more, and then good players stepped up and made plays. Jao went off, obviously. Jordan had some huge buckets, and we got a couple (of) timely defensive stops and rebounds and that’s basketball. When we defend and rebound well, we’re pretty darn good, because that gets our offense rolling.”