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As his team hung their heads and began a disappointed walk to the locker room at Robinson Secondary School on Monday night, Annandale High School head coach Anthony Harper muttered two words to himself.
"Rebounds and turnovers," he said.
Those two words proved to be the difference maker for the Atoms in their 59-54 loss to T.C. Williams High School in the AAA Northern Region finals.
Throughout the region final, Annandale's best efforts to take a lead or establish an offensive flow was thwarted by turnovers that handed the game back to the Titans. T.C. Williams used the mishaps to fuel a 15-2 run in the third quarter and a 8-0 run in the fourth to fend off the Atoms.
"We'd get off a good shot and then it would go in the other direction," Harper said. "We were over-dribbling, over-penetrating and we turned the ball over at the wrong time. I told the kids to remember the district game and that we need to rebound better and protect the ball."
Annandale senior Karl Ziegler led all scorers with 22 points. Titans' senior Rick Matthews scored 17 points and was named the tournament's most valuable player.
Although the second half was filled with errors by the Atoms, the first half wasn't pretty for either team. For the first 16 minutes of the game, Annandale and T.C. Williams exchanged air balls, turnovers, errant passes and awkward missed lay-ups.
"It was kind of rough," Harper said. "I think it's funny because both teams were kind of feeling each other out. It's our fourth time playing against each other and our kids had good intentions, but we were rushing and playing too fast."
When the second half began, T.C. Williams appeared to have corrected and calmed their players down, but Harper noted his team might have been caught up in the atmosphere of a region title game.
"They've been here a few times and we haven't," Harper said. "For our kids, we just tried to look at it like a regular game. I thought that if we played hard and the effort was there, the [inexperience] wouldn't matter."
After clawing back from a nine point deficit, the Atoms trailed near the mid-way point of the fourth quarter, only to have a set of turnovers and fouls put the game back in the Titans' hands.
The region final was the fourth meeting between the two Patriot District rivals, and last week the Titans defeated the Atoms in the district final.
With the district loss fresh on his mind, senior Melvin Robinson said he went through a harder workout and pre-game routine to prepare for the Titans.
"I tried to do the way I warmed up better," Robinson said. "I tried to get more sweat before the game, get more rebounds and play my game."
Ziegler added: "Me, Melvin [Robinson] and D'Angelo [Boyce] are the only ones with real experience playing in championship games, so maybe that experience had something to do with it. Maybe guys were a little too fired up to play."
T.C. Williams holds a 3-1 record over the Atoms now, but Annandale did score a surprising 72-64 win over the Titans during the regular season. Since then, the games between the two clubs have followed scripts that are more familiar to the Atoms -- hard-fought, close loses.
"Down the stretch we just haven't been able to take care of the ball," Harper said. "In all our games against T.C. Williams, it always comes down to the fourth quarter and then it's mistakes that give it up."
Harper's team now will travel to The College of William & Mary to play Eastern Region champion and defending state champion I.C. Norcom High School on Saturday. T.C. Williams draws Phoebus High School for a Friday night match at Robinson.
Once again thrust into the underdog role, the Atoms are relishing the chance to play spoiler to a team that has reached as high as No. 4 on national rankings.
"We are one of the underdogs in the region," Ziegler said. "We kind of made a statement to our school and in the tournament. Things have changed [at Annandale]."
Beating Norcom is easier said than done and if it's going to happen, Harper already has his to-do list on what needs to be fixed.
"Rebounds and turnovers," he said.