Engineers hand No. 3 Dunbar first loss, clinch spot in Baltimore City boys’ hoops final; Lewis goes for 36 (VIDEO HERE!!) 

Poly’s Justin Lewis goes up to the basket as Dunbar’s Sean Tolbert (left) and Jamal West (15) defends during Friday’s Baltimore City Division I contest. The sophomore posted 36 points and 12 rebounds, leading the fifth-ranked Engineers past the previously undefeated and No. 3 Poets to secure a berth in next weekend’s city title game at Morgan State University. (photo – Jimmy Fields Sr.)

by Derek Toney

photos by Jimmy Fields Sr.

Poly High boys’ basketball team knew Friday’s match against Dunbar posed several challenges. The Engineers had to play on Coach Bob Wade Court inside the fabled Poets’ gym, nicknamed “Eastside Gardens,” where numerous championship banners hang – a reminder of Dunbar’s iconic history.

In addition to playing an undefeated Poet squad, Poly also had to confront a raucous crowd which challenged its psyche. The Engineers aptly overcame the distractions and captured their biggest win of the season.

No. 5 Poly defeated the third-ranked Poets, 65-61, in front of a capacity audience in east Baltimore. Sophomore forward Justin Lewis scored 36 points for the Engineers (14-5 overall) and Cleveland Horton added 12.

Thanks to a career-best performance from Lewis and timely contributions, Poly rallied in the second half to clinch a third straight appearance in the Baltimore City Division I final. The Cold Spring Lane school (7-1 Division I) will play Dunbar (6-1 Division I), next Saturday evening at Morgan State University’s Hill Field House.

The participants may be hard pressed to duplicate Friday’s mini-classic, full of crowd pleasing dunks, clutch outside shooting and unlikely contributions. The only blemished was an altercation that threatened the game to be resumed in an empty gym.

Standing in a downstairs hallway, waiting for the gym to clear before his team could go to the locker room, Poly coach Sam Brand applauded his team’s fortitude.

“You got to pick and choose your battles because when you become a man, there are going to be a lot of things you’re going to be faced with….we knew the challenge we wanted was on the court,” said Brand. “I looked at those guys and told them we’re ready for that challenge.”

“We had a couple of close games and they were learning experiences. Finally we came out on top and fought back,” said Lewis. “There were so many times we could’ve gave up, but we kept fighting.”

Lewis, a sophomore transfer from Calvert Hall College, showed why he’s regarded as one of the nation’s premier recruits in the Class of 2020. The 6-foot-8 forward carried the Engineers in the second half with 25 points, and finished with 12 rebounds and blocked five shots.

After junior reserve Armani Walker gave Poly its first lead with a jumper before the third quarter buzzer, Lewis went for 14 points in the pivotal final eight minutes. After hitting a 3-pointer, Lewis followed Walker’s miss in transition, giving the Engineers a 55-47 advantage with 3 minutes, 47 seconds left in regulation.

“He put us on his back tonight and it was a pleasure to watch,” Brand said.

“That kid did everything for us tonight,” said Poly senior wing and Long Beach State recruit Demetrius Mims, who scored only six points. “He defended, rebounded, gave us easy twos when we needed them.”

Arguably Lewis’ biggest basket came late in regulation when he followed Rakeem Ali’s miss and was fouled with 1:24 remaining. He completed the 3-point play, giving Poly a 58-53 lead.

With Dunbar within 58-55 with 55 seconds left, Lewis scored off a drive. Ali corralled a Dunbar miss and threw an outlet to Mims for a layup with 19 seconds to play, causing a good portion of the packed stands to the exit doors.

Dunbar, off to its best start since its 1991-92 29-0 mythical national title season, established an early 12-4 advantage, and led 24-13 in the second quarter after Malik McCormick’s 3-pointer. The Poets led 29-19 late in the second, then a Lewis dunk sparked Poly.

The Engineers scored the eight final points, capped by a Horton steal and a basket and another Horton steal, resulting in a layup by Ali.

As the Engineers headed to the locker room for intermission, an altercation occurred with an adult Dunbar supporter.

“An angry fan tried to intimidate one of our players and took it to a physical place,” Brand said.

Baltimore City School police handcuffed the individual and removed him from the gym. A soda can was thrown from the stands.

After a Dunbar assistant principal announced the gym would be cleared for the second half, order was restored. The Poets reestablished their advantage as McCormick’s 4-point play made it 38-31, with 4:55 left in the third, but junior post Jamal West was on the bench with four fouls.

Lewis began taking over, following a free throw with a dunk. With the Engineers down 41-36, Lewis (five assists) found Walker (six points) for a basket and converted a 3-point play, pulling Poly even at 41 with 1:23 remaining.

“He’s made a lot of strides. Our level of confidence in what he’s bringing to the team has grown each game,” said Brand of Lewis. “He’s an emotional guy and plays with a lot of passion. I love it.”

McCormick led Dunbar (18-1) with 20 points and senior wing Da’Shawn Phillip added 17. West finished 13, but only three in the second half.

Dunbar coach Diego Jones has said his team hasn’t been focus on an undefeated season. Friday, however, was the first time this season he had to talk his squad after a loss.

“Defensively, just didn’t get the stops we normally would get and got into some foul trouble,” said Jones. “They made the plays we normally would make.

It’s just one game, it’s not a hinderance in us reaching our goals. We still have a lot of things we want to accomplish.”

Round two between the Poets and Poly next Saturday will be a rematch of the 2016 city title game, won by the Engineers, who claimed their first league championship. Poly lost to Patterson in last season’s city title match.

After fading in several high profile matches this season, Poly picked a right time to rise.

“I got a lot of faith in these guys. We’ve been through a lot of games and put ourselves in that gauntlet so we can get better,” said Brand. “Everybody’s growth is base on challenging ourselves.”

No. 5 Poly 65, No. 3 Dunbar 61

Poly – Lewis 36, Horton 12, Mims 6, Walker 6, Jones 1. Totals 24 12-22 65.

Dunbar – McCormick 20, Phillip 17, West 13, Giles 4, Ayers 3, Esguerra 2, Tolbert 2. Totals 17 16-21 61.

Poly 7 20 16 22 – 65

Dunbar 12 17 12 20 – 61