The game didn’t begin well for the Bulldogs, who trailed 8-0 in a start that Coach Dave Blumenthal called “slow … and a little bit stagnant.”
It had a compounding effect. Because Churchill (12-3) couldn’t score, it couldn’t set up its press. A frustrated Blumenthal called a timeout and emphatically told his team it was playing into the hands of the Vikings (11-3), who wanted to get set in their matchup zone defense.
Mbeng finally got the Bulldogs on the scoreboard out of the timeout with a three-pointer, part of a brisk nine-point run buoyed by press-induced turnovers. The guard conducted Churchill with pace, delivering passes to open players around the court.
“His mind and his body can just go at that speed,” Blumenthal said of Mbeng. “He has the ability to just be able to play fast, but it doesn’t look like he’s ever sped up.”
Churchill boys have titles to defend and hunger for the one they missed
Mbeng grabbed a rebound midway through the third quarter and delivered a long pass to Ezekiel Avit, a Maryland football signee who used his wide receiver skills to control the pass before dunking the ball.
The Whitman defender chasing Avit had no chance. “[You’re not] going to beat him down the floor most of the time in a foot race,” Mbeng said.
Avit dealt with foul trouble and scored just seven points. Nick Goldberg, a junior transfer from Quince Orchard, filled the scoring void by making five three-pointers en route to 25 points.
Avit did have a thunderous dunk over a defender in the fourth quarter that sent the home crowd into a frenzy. It felt like an exclamation point on a potential victory, but the Vikings (11-3) responded with long-range threes to cut into the deficit and prompt flashbacks to the teams’ Jan. 9 matchup, in which Whitman overcame a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to win in overtime.
This time, the Bulldogs clamped down to secure the win.
“One of my biggest takeaways was our mental resiliency,” Blumenthal said. “We could have just shut down like ‘Oh crap, here it goes again,’ and [we] didn’t. … That was just a big step for our guys to get prepared for a playoff run.”