The McLean Highlanders’ season, on the surface, appeared entirely un-remarkable heading into the playoffs. With a 7-7 conference record and a 14-12 overall record, expectations were low for the fifth-seeded team in the Liberty District. However, the spectacular play of their seniors seemed to will the team on to the Liberty finals and into the Northern Region Tournament.
After posting an opening round victory in the Liberty District Tournament on Tuesday, Feb. 19 against South Lakes, the Highlanders faced a difficult task two days later, as they faced top seeded W.T. Woodson. Woodson, ranked No. 11 in the region by the Washington Post, had only posted one loss all season to Liberty District opponents and was a heavy favorite to advance to the finals. The Highlanders had other plans for the Cavaliers.
McLean's first-year head coach Kevin Roller devised a new defensive game plan that, combined with incredible offensive balance, helped the Highlanders overcome the odds and beat the top-seeded Cavaliers, 56-40.
“The real difference in this game was the offensive efficiency. We were as efficient as we’ve been all season. When you’re having real success at the offensive end, it puts a lot of pressure on the other team, which makes it easier to play defense,” Roller said.
Despite the Cavaliers jumping out to a three-point lead by the end of the first quarter, the Highlanders rallied and entered halftime with a 27-22 lead of their own, poised for the upset.
After a low-scoring third quarter that drew McLean’s lead down to three, the Highlanders exploded offensively in the fourth, outscoring Woodson 19-5 over the last seven minutes of the game. Senior Tarek Ammoury, the all-star of the Highlanders all season, led the charge with a game-high 27 points. The victory guaranteed McLean’s first Regional Tournament berth since 1999.
Two days later, McLean entered the South Lakes gym once more to face the Langley Saxons in the Liberty District finals, a first for every member of the Highlanders. However, the night would not end as well this time, as the Saxons stifled Ammoury and the rest of the McLean team, winning 55-34.
Langley used the box-and-one defense to negate the offensive prowess of Ammoury. Their tactics worked brilliantly, as the Saxons held the McLean star, later named the Northern Region's Player of the Year, to eight points on the night, far below his tournament average. In fact, only Joe Russomanno of the Highlanders scored in double-digits, leading the team with 11 points. Comparatively, senior forward Ahmed Malik and senior Ryan Davenport led the Saxon charge with 17 and 16 points respectively, nearly outscoring the entire Highlander team on their own.
“It was the first time anyone on the team had been to the district finals … we didn’t react as well as I hoped,” Roller said. “Langley hit their first four shots while we were struggling to adapt, and we lost our composure. We weren’t nearly as crisp or disciplined as we were against Woodson.”
The performance by McLean in the Liberty District Tournament gave the Highlanders a berth against the Mt. Vernon Majors in the first round of the regional tournament on Monday, Feb. 25.
The first-round game ended in climactic fashion, but ultimately in heartbreak for the Highlanders, as they fell to Mt. Vernon, 54-52, on a last second tip-in. McLean jumped on the Majors early by opening the game with a 20-8 run, not wishing to fall behind like they had in the Langley game. By halftime, the score was 22-15, and the considerable buzz in the gym only became more electric as the upset bid of McLean began taking shape, much like it had against W.T. Woodson.
The second half featured offensive outbursts from both teams, with the fourth quarter turning into a duel of star seniors. The Majors, down by 10 late in the third quarter, scrapped their way back in a two minute span to drop McLean’s lead to one entering the fourth quarter. Then it was the seniors’ turn to take over — the battle between Ammoury and Mt. Vernon senior point guard Marquel DeLancey was on. DeLancey, “one of the only players in the region that could match up well one-on-one with Tarek” according to Roller, finished with 18 points, while Ammoury scored a game-high 20.
The difference came in the final seconds of the game. McLean was inbounding the ball from under the Mt. Vernon basket. Instead of running a typical inbounds play which would have likely led to overtime, McLean decided to go for the kill and score on a full-court play.
“They had been picking up momentum throughout the fourth quarter, we were on the road, and we ran that play in practice at least once or twice a week,” said Coach Roller, explaining his rationale.
McLean attempted to inbound halfway down the court, but overthrew the intended target. A Mt. Vernon player may or may not have touched the ball before it went out of bounds; however, the officials ruled no contact, giving Mt. Vernon the ball under their own basket with no time expiring from the clock.
“It was close. It seemed clear to me on the bench that he touched the ball with his fingertips … but it was nothing more than a fingertip touch. At that point, I wasn’t arguing that it should have been our ball, I was just arguing that it should go to [overtime].”
Unfortunately for the Highlanders, the officials did not see it the same way. The Majors inbounded to freshman Jesse Konadu, whose shot circled around the rim and fell out. However, Mt. Vernon sophomore Skylar Jones was in the right place at the right time, elevated, and tipped the ball in as the final buzzer sounded. Mt. Vernon had escaped with a two-point victory and ended a remarkable career for Tarek Ammoury.
“I can’t give my kids enough credit. It’s frustrating,” Roller said. “It’s a somewhat unique way to come up on the short end of what was, in my mind, a heck of a season. I tried to tell them after the game of how proud I was. For my first year as a head coach, I was blessed to have that group of kids.”
Both senior captains Ammoury and Peter Kenallias were named to the all-tournament team.
Furthermore, Ammoury was named both Liberty District Player of the Year and the Northern Region Player of the Year. Coach Roller called the honors “a fitting way to honor the career of a great kid.”
Coach Roller, although understandably upset to see his star player graduate and head off to college, remains optimistic for the future.
“I just hope this is motivation for the younger guys to come out and really work hard next year. Basketball’s a lot of fun when you’re playing in front of these packed houses, but it takes a lot of work,” Roller said. “I think the end of this season is gonna really get these kids excited for the years to come.”