The players on Howard High’s boys basketball team weren’t worried about the past and the weight and value of Sanford’s three consecutive state crowns.
For Howard, it came down to believing in itself when it didn’t seem as if anybody else did, sticking to a game plan that revolved around its trio of talented guards and sending a loaded class of seven seniors out on top.
That recipe worked to perfection as senior guard Tyaire Ponzo-Meek scored a game-high 25 points and pulled down eight rebounds to spark the second-seeded Wildcats to a convincing 81-62 triumph over top-seeded Sanford in the DIAA Boys Basketball Tournament state championship game at the Bob Carpenter Center on Saturday.
The Wildcats won their fourth state title and first since 1996. They became the first public school to capture the crown since William Penn in 2009.
It was a far cry from last year, when Sanford defeated the Wildcats 68-46 in the quarterfinals en route to its third title in a row.
“Last year we left with a horrible taste in our mouth,” Ponzo-Meek said. “I was just anxious to play this game. I couldn’t sleep [Friday night]. I had a dream about this and I was just anxious. Last year was the worst experience ever, but I’m glad it happened because it showed us that we can do it.”
Some of the 3,986 fans spilled onto the court to help the Wildcats celebrate after the final buzzer.
“That was the first game that we’ve come into as an underdog, which I liked,” Howard head coach Chris DiMascio said. “I thought it gives our guys a little chance to put that ‘You’re on top’ thing behind yourself and fight.
“Fight from behind and understand [Sanford] was going to be the best team we’ve played this year … and had emotions running for a four-peat. We have emotions running for our first-time championship [together], and I think we came out with the mentality of nothing to lose. We got our confidence early and it stayed the whole time.”
Senior guard Larry Woody scored 16 points and senior guard Gjaimeir Stanford chipped in with 15 points and five rebounds for Howard (23-1), which ended its memorable journey with its 18th consecutive victory.
Junior guard Anthony Mosley and Todd Hughes scored 19 points apiece, and senior guard Sabri Thompson added 16 points for Sanford (19-5), which fell behind early and never recovered.
“Tough one,” said Stan Waterman, the Warriors’ head coach and a Howard graduate. “[Howard] played an outstanding ballgame. Their guard play was phenomenal. Tyaire [Ponzo-Meek] controlled the game. They made open shots and they were the better team.
“Every time we felt like we were making a run, they’d make a big shot. They had an answer for every little run we made. We were never really able to put together anything that we could sustain.”
Howard set the tempo early and kept right on dancing until the finish.
A couple of free throws by Stanford seemed innocent enough at the time as Howard took a 6-4 lead early on. But things snowballed from there for the Wildcats, who never trailed again.
Howard finished the first quarter on a 15-7 run, scoring the final eight points of the opening frame, and extended its lead to 21-11 on Stanford’s driving runner.
Ponzo-Meek drove the lane for a basket that gave Howard a 32-19 lead three-and-a-half minutes into the second quarter, its biggest lead of the first half.
Sanford later found its rhythm. The Warriors went on a 10-5 run late in the second and pulled to within 37-29 at the break on Mosley’s putback of his own missed shot.
Just when it appeared as if Sanford was in a position to seize some momentum early in the second half, the Wildcats kept stopping all of their runs short. They held a 55-40 lead heading into the final quarter.
“The intensity was almost overwhelming,” Howard senior forward Lamont Davis said. “We had our crowd behind us, and we fought the whole way. We played smart, we played defense, we got baskets … we did everything right.”
For Sanford, all of those championships finally came to an end.
“Everything was going for them,” Thompson said of the Wildcats. “They played a great game. It’s been a great ride, and I can’t ask for anything more. To make it to the championship game again feels great. I wanted to win it but Howard did a great job.”
Howard has its work cut out if it would like a championship repeat as seven of the 10 players on its roster are seniors. That’s OK, they said, they’ll just enjoy this one for now.
“I knew this was our year,” Ponzo-Meek said. “Coming into the year I was not going out without a championship, and we showed them.”
DiMascio looked on like a proud parent as his players climbed the ladder and cut down the net at the Carpenter Center.
“Our motto this year was, ‘Cut the nets,’ ” DiMascio said. “I stole that from Kentucky … last year after they won the championship and we’ve been talking about it and talking about it.”
Now, the Wildcats have lived it.