Centerville’s Chris Kuzemka said he is good friends with several of the now graduated Centreville seniors who were declared Class 6 state co-champions with South County last season when the pandemic cancelled the state final.

He took part in a group text with them before Saturday night’s class 6 title game against visiting Potomac where the group said, “Win it [the title] for us.”

Kuzemka’s defensive energy and clutch shooting from both the field and the line were pivotal elements in helping Centreville do just that as the host Wildcats beat Potomac, 63-49, to capture this year’s state title on their home floor.

Centreville (14-2) was full of experience (seven seniors) and size (eight of the 14 players on the roster are at least 6-3), while Potomac (13-1), which fell short of winning its fourth state title, also had seven seniors, but just five players on its roster that were 6-3 or taller.

That size advantage helped the Wildcats score several baskets in the paint, while Centreville’s defense, which Kuzemka called “one of the best in the state,” forced Potomac to shoot mainly from the perimeter and take more low percentage shots than they are accustomed to.

The teams played to a 7-7 tie in the first quarter, but Potomac’s offensive rhythm, which had been a staple throughout the season, was stymied in the first half (6 of 21 from the field, 28.5 percent), while Centreville’s execution from the field was just slightly better (8 for 24, 33.3 percent) as the Wildcats took a 25-19 halftime advantage.

Avery Ford, a 6-5 senior who was one of the Wildcats’ key offensive pieces all season, had a slow start, scoring just one field goal in the first quarter, but scored seven of his 17 points in the second quarter.

Potomac’s Tyrell Harris, the Cardinal District’s Player of the Year, led the Panthers in the first half, scoring 10 of their 19 points en route to scoring a team-high 17 for the game.

The Panthers’ energy was palpable in the third quarter when Harris scored six and Kejahn Rainey and Kyle Honore each scored four points. Potomac went on a 14-6 run near the end of the quarter to tie the game at 38-38 on a running layup by Lorin Hall with :30 left in the third quarter.

But junior Mason Jones’s layup with 12 seconds left in the quarter gave the Wildcats a two-point lead at the end of the third period.

Potomac tied the game again at 42-42 on a layup by Rainey with 6:18 remaining, but shortly after that, the Panthers committed their seventh team foul of the half, putting Centreville into a bonus situation for the rest of the game.

Panthers’ coach Keith Honore said the free throw disparity in the second half (Centreville attempted 20 free throws to Potomac’s six in the half) was a key factor.

“I am proud of the kids, especially for the [comeback they made] to get back into the game,” Honore said. “They’re a good bunch of kids. But my heart breaks for them because of the situation they were put in. They weren’t put into a good situation [by the referees]. I am not taking anything away from Centreville; they deserved to win the state title. But I am going to have to swallow this one because they [Potomac’s players] weren’t put in a good situation and that breaks my heart for them.”

Kuzemka did his part to break the Panthers’ hearts at the line, making 9 of 11 free throws overall, including two after a technical foul was assessed on Honore.

“I come in early before every game and shoot lots of free throws with coach Joe [Turner] and coach Dom Kosh] and it paid off tonight,” Kuzemka said. “Potomac was also able to get into the paint a couple times, but mostly we played like if they were going to make shots, they were going to make difficult shots. Our defense has been great all season and it was outstanding tonight.”

Kuzemka said playing at home in the state title game was “different, but it definitely helped.” There was not much of a crowd, about 100 people, mostly media types were in the gym, but there was a significant amount of people wearing Centreville spirit wear who chanted “Defense” throughout the game and who shouted encouragement nearly every time the Wildcats went to the line.

“It was definitely great to play on our court,” Kuzemka said.

For Potomac, Harris ended his high school career in stellar fashion, scoring 17 points before fouling out just under a minute to play and Rainey’s defensive energy played a key role in helping the Panthers tie the game in the fourth quarter before the free throw disparity caught up to Potomac.

Centreville coach Kevin Smith said the team’s hard-working nature was the biggest factor in the victory.

“This victory is a testament to their determination. They do what they are supposed to do and are very coachable,” Smith said. “[Kuzemka] is incredible. He’s liked by everyone and always asks questions, always wants to get better. When you play for the state title, you have to be smarter and wiser out there and as long as the kids did what they were supposed to do, we knew good things were going to happen [even when Potomac made a run].”

POTOMAC (13-1) Rainey 2 5-6 10, Honore 7 0-0 15, Hall 1 0-0 2, Wright 1 0-0 2, Jackson 1 0-0 3, Harris 6 6-8 17. Totals—18 11-14 49.

CENTREVILLE (14-2) Kuzemka 5 9-11 21, Schirmer 3 0-2 6, Newell 0 0-2 0, McClain 2 4-4 8, Ford 6 4-4 17, Jones 4 2-3 11. Totals—20 19-26 63.

Halftime score—Centreville, 25-19. Three-point goals—Potomac 3 (Rainey, Honore, Jackson), Centreville 3 (Kuzemka 2, Ford). Fouled out—Harris. Technical foul—Potomac coach Honore

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