The Fort Meade Patriots couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2017 Washington Area Military Athletic Conference season.
Saturday, they defeated the Fort Lee Travellers 86-79 to run their conference record to 3-0.
The game was tight throughout, coming down to the final minute before free throws provided the final 7-point margin.
The win was especially sweet for the Patriots and their head coach Ronny Cunningham, who had lost four straight to the Travellers.
“We haven’t beaten them in a long time,” Cunningham said. “They’re the defending champs. They won everything last year. They won all the tournaments. They won the conference regular season, the conference tournament.
“Those are really tough players. That was a big win. I’m so proud of my guys. That was a tough team there, and I mean we had to gut that out. We grew up today.”
As far as keys to the victory, Cunningham said patience was probably the biggest factor.
“In a lot of games we played them [Fort Lee], we’ve had double-digit leads with under eight, nine, 10 minutes,” he said. “We panicked, weren’t patient, didn’t run the offense, let them get back into the game[s]. They were smart enough to take advantage.
“Today, we did the total opposite. … I loved our mental toughness on defense the last four minutes of the game.”
Indeed, the contest went back and forth with numerous lead changes throughout the game. A layup by Darion Bethea closed the Patriots’ half-time deficit to 4 points.
The second half was more of the same with neither team able to extend a lead to more than 7 points.
Down by 7 midway through the second half, the Patriots didn’t panic this time. Led by point guard Keenan Bennett, the Patriots wore down the Travellers, getting a couple of steals and easy baskets in the final minute.
After the game, Cunningham raved about Bennett’s performance.
“This guy has grown up so much,” the coach said. “It’s really tough to keep in front of him. … The thing with him is the mental part. He has the athleticism. He can score with anybody. But it’s the mental toughness, and he grew up a lot and showed me a lot of mental toughness today, and I’m so proud of him.”
Bennett led all scorers with 30 points, including 20 in the second half. Tyler Francis scored 23 and Llewellyn Smalley tossed in 21.
If the Patriots are going to keep their perfect conference record intact, they’ll have to do it on the road. They’re not scheduled to play at home again until Feb. 25.
In the meantime, they’ll face Joint Base McGuire, NSA Bethesda, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Fort Belvoir, Joint Base Andrews before a rematch with the defending conference champion, Fort Lee, on Feb. 12.
The Patriots are scheduled to play in the annual Capital Classic Tournament Feb. 17-20, which will be held at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
The team finally returns home to face NSA Bethesda on Feb. 25. All home games take place in Murphy Field House with a 1 p.m. tipoff.