HAGERSTOWN — There were moments, fleeting as they may have been, when it looked like Eastern Hancock was going to do it again.
A year ago, the Royals dropped their season finale 53-50 to Hagerstown — something they repeated this season, losing to the Tigers 58-47 last Friday — only to rebound in the sectional quarterfinals with 69-51 victory.
But heart and soul can only take a team so far, steady scoring is needed to advance in the postseason, and EH struggled in that category all season.
The Royals’ fatal flaw reappeared once more Wednesday in the 2A Sectional 41 quarterfinals at Hagerstown, as the host Tigers dispatched Eastern Hancock 53-46.
2A No. 16 Hagerstown (20-2) advanced to play Centerville (10-10) today in the second semifinal at 7:30 p.m. The Bulldogs felled Cambridge City Lincoln 54-42 in Wednesday’s first quarterfinal.
Northeastern (11-9) takes on defending sectional champion Union County (16-6) in today’s initial semifinal at 6 p.m.
With 38 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Garrett Hancock sunk two free throws to bring EH (6-15) within a point at 40-39, and to complete a 16-point quarter.
The Royals wouldn’t score again until Isaiah McCormick’s triple cut the Tigers’ margin to 48-42 with four minutes and 26 ticks left in the fourth quarter.
In the second quarter, Eastern Hancock was ahead 20-14 with 3:58 left, but McCormick’s 3-pointer was the lone field goal for the Royals during a 15-3 Tiger run to close the half, and EH trailed 29-23 at the break.
All season long, Aaron Spaulding’s team was been prone to scoring droughts — the current group was his lowest scoring team (50 ppg) since the 2005-06 unit (47.7) — that made it seem as if getting a bucket was as difficult as learning a new language.
“That comes from not having a big kid that we can say, ‘Let’s go to the post and get to the foul line,’” said the 14th-year coach. “Real honestly, we kind of have to earn everything.
“Sometimes it goes dry on us and that allows teams to get a lead, especially good teams. We had a couple of those tonight, and ultimately that’s probably the difference.”
Cody Wallace snared an offensive rebound and sank a baseline jumper to inch EH closer at 50-46 with 1:14 remaining in the fourth.
And after Shane McCormick’s second blocked shot of the night gave the Royals the ball on the next possession, one couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this happening again?”
Alas, Isaiah McCormick’s ensuing 3-pointer was short, and two Hagerstown free throws coupled with an EH turnover sealed Spaulding’s first season sans double digit wins since that 2005-06 group finished 6-15.
“I don’t have any complaints. We executed our game plan. We played our hearts out,” offered Spaulding, now 155-154 at EH. “We laid it on the floor to the horn and came up a little bit short.”
The crux of Spaulding’s scheme Wednesday night was be “even-steven” with Hagerstown on the boards.
After his team was outrebounded by 15 last Friday, Spaulding wanted to simply keep pace with the Tigers on the glass.
Part two of the strategy was to limit the post effectiveness of the taller Tigers — specifically 6-6 junior Tyler Black — who registered 18 points in the first meeting.
Eastern Hancock performed its task well enough.
Hagerstown won the rebounding battle by just four at 31-27, and Black — who was also content to not force shots amid constant double teams — had only two points, but did corral 10 rebounds.
“The effort on the glass was fantastic,” said Spaulding, whose team lost in its sectional opener for only the fifth time in his tenure. “They did a great job.”
The Royals benefitted greatly from the return of Hancock, who last played Jan. 4.
The junior guard, averaging nine points before coming down with mononucleosis, checked in late in the first quarter, and his 3 from the right corner gave EH its first lead at 9-6. Hancock went on to score his team’s first five points of the second frame on a triple and a layup.
The latter was succeeded by a coast-to-coast layup by Wallace, which handed the Royals’ their largest advantage of the night (18-11) at the 6:08 mark.
Then, with EH trailing 35-29 in the third quarter, Hancock scored five points during a 6-0 Royal run, culminating the spurt with a straight-away, NBA-range trey that leveled the game at 35 with 2:15 left.
“He’s the kind of kid that pressure doesn’t bother him,” said Spaulding of Hancock, who hit five consecutive free throws late in EH’s 71-64 overtime win over Lincoln in last season’s sectional semis. “We couldn’t ride him too much tonight because he’s coming off mono — I know he’s dead tired now — (so) we couldn’t play him maybe as we normally would have just because it was his first game back.
“But I thought he did a great job tonight.”
The addition of Hancock meant the Royals’ preseason rotation was nearly intact — a rare occurrence this winter — with one glaring exception.
Victor Vincz, the team’s leading scorer and Hancock County’s top point producer during the 2011-12 season, sat behind his team’s bench Wednesday in a silver Eastern Hancock jump suit. The dynamic senior guard has been out recently with concussion-like symptoms.
“He is feeling better,” Spaulding said of Vincz. “He is a really good kid who has a kept a great attitude.”
Vincz accounted for nine of the combined 31 games missed due to injury by six of the Royals’ top rotation players, which also included Hancock (10), Shane McCormick (five), Cooper Henderson (four), Derrik Noel (two) and Garrett Lee (one).
“It was something new every day,” Spaulding commented. “And this is a true statement: We’ve had more players miss games this year than my other 13 years combined. … I don’t think it’s close.”
The veteran coach then began to become visibly emotional, choking up while recalling one of his more difficult seasons in Charlottesville.
“We had a lot of adversity. Coaching is about building men. And I thought we did that this year, dealing with adversity. We had a lot of kids who had a lot of heart and kept it up.”
Hagerstown moved within two wins of its fifth sectional championship and first since 1965.
Sophomore Thorin Stage carried the Tigers in the first half, scoring 18 of his game-best 21 points in the first two quarters.
Bryan Matthews played the role of closer for Hagerstown, tallying six of his 13 points in the final quarter.
Hancock paced EH with 15 points. Wallace (nine points, nine rebounds) and Shane McCormick (seven points, three rebounds, two blocks) were solid in their final games as Royals. Lee and Jake Hicks were the team’s other seniors.
The Royals began the season 2-3, lost eight straight — something the 2005-06 team also endured — before finishing their campaign 4-4.
“A lot teams I think would’ve folded and let it go, been one of those teams that wins one game and kind of lets it go, but we became a very, very competitive basketball team down the stretch,” Spaulding explained. “We beat Edinburgh (13-9), we took Morristown (15-6) to three points. Hagerstown has lost two games all year and we’re in the game in the last two minutes.
“Dealing with adversity…certainly nobody wants it. When you deal with it, that’s when you get to teach.”
Notes: Spencer Gilbert recorded a game-high 11 rebounds off the bench for EH. … The Royals have won five sectional crowns, the last two under Spaulding (2003, 2008). … Hagerstown started its season 14-0. … The winner of Sectional 41 advances to take on the victor of Sectional 42 at Broad Ripple March 9 in the Connersville Regional. ... EH was of 5-of-11 from the free-throw lines, Hagerstown was 10-16.
2A Sectional 41 Quarterfinal at Hagerstown
Hagerstown 53, Eastern Hancock 46
HA — Black 1-2 0-0 2, Bartlett 3-10 0-0 7, Matthews 6-10 0-0 13, Charles 2-6 2-3 6, Stage 5-14 8-13 21, Grose 2-3 0-0 4 McKissick 0-0 0-0 0, Weiss 0-0 0-0 0. Totals — 19-45 10-16 53.
EH — Hancock 5-11 2-2 15, Wallace 4-8 1-3 9, S. McCormick 3-8 1-2 7, I. McCormick 2-8 6, Lee 2-6 1-2 5, Noel 2-6 0-0 4, Gilbert 0-3 0-2 0, Henderson 0-1 0-0 0, Fout 0-1 0-0 0. Totals — 18-52 5-11 46.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
HA (20-2) 8 21 13 11 — 53
EH (6-15) 11 12 16 7 — 46
Three-pt. field goals: HA 5-10 (Bartlett 1-4, Matthews 1-1, Stage 3-5), EH 5-20 (Hancock 3-8, S. McCormick 0-2, I. McCormick 2-7, Lee 0-1, Gilbert 0-2).
Rebounds: HA 31 (Black 10, Bartlett 3, Matthews 6, Charles 1, Stage 3, Grose 5, McKissick 3), EH 27 (Wallace 9, S. McCormick 3, Lee 1, Noel 1, Gilbert 11, Henderson 1, Fout 1). Assists: HA 5 (Black 1, Matthews 1, Charles 3), EH 4 (Hancock 1, Noel 1, Henderson 1, Fout 1). Steals: HA 5 (Stage 1, Grose 3, McKissick 1), EH 4 (Wallace 3, Gilbert 1). Blocks: HA 2 (Black 2), EH 2 (S. McCormick 2). Total fouls: HA 14, EH 19. Fouled out: None. Turnovers: HA 11, EH 11.