Hammond High School's girls basketball team, the winner of just one of 22 games last year, is no longer a laughing matter.
The Golden Bears began believing it last month, when they stunned coach Joe Russo by scoring 75 points in a preseason scrimmage. They convinced themselves further by jumping out to a 4-1 start.
Hammond's rejuvenation continued Friday night on its home court, in its own brand-new tournament -- the Bear Invitational. Sparked by tenacious defense and a terrific 18-point, 12-steal, eight-assist performance by freshman point guard Kacy Williams, the Bears overwhelmedLaurel, 54-45, to win the tournament.
The Bears, who dispatched Pallotti 50-32 in the semifinals, are 6-1. Once you stop doing your double-take, note the Bears have collected more victories in the past three weeks than they managed in the previous two seasons. Even beforethey begin a tough county schedule next week at Atholton, the Bears can probably claim the Comeback Team of the Year Award.
What kind of a difference does a year make? What better player to ask than 5-foot-10 senior center Emily Minah? She endured a 4-17 season as a sophomore, then sunk to an all-time low last winter when Hammond failed towin a game against the county, lost its last 20 games and wound up with a 1-21 record.
"It (last year) got real hard for everyone. It's a long season and you still have to practice every day, and we weren't getting anything back for our hard work," said Minah, who scored 10 points and led Hammond with 12 rebounds against Laurel and was named to the All-Tournament Team.
"This year, everyone is here to win. No one has a just-go-out-and-play attitude," Minah added. "We have some momentum going and we've got motivation, especially after last year."
And one more thing. The Bears also have more talent than they've had in three years, thanks mostly to two freshmen -- Williams and Sonia Keiner.
Keiner, a 5-9 forward, came into the tournament leading Hammond with eight rebounds a game and averaging 10.4 points on60 percent shooting. She scored seven points and grabbed seven rebounds Friday night to complement Minah nicely inside.
But Friday night belonged to Williams, a 5-5 guard who ignited the Bears at both ends of the floor with a scintillating 30-minute display to earn a spoton the All-Tournament Team.
Williams' 18 points led the Bears. When she wasn't pulling up for outside jump shots, she was dishing off passes to wide-open teammates like 5-9 sophomore forward Kristen Moraz, who owed half of her 16 points to Williams.
Williams made an even deeper mark with her aggressive defense, which produced a game-high 12 steals, many of which sparked her own fast-break layups.
The Bears primarily relied on a box-and-one defense designed to stop Laurel sharpshooter Nicole Mamula, who entered the tournament averaging over 30 points a game. She had scored 38 in the Spartans' semifinal victory over Paint Branch.
Mamula scored a game-high 35 against Hammond -- including four three-pointers in the fourth quarter with Hammond comfortably ahead -- to account for 78 percent of Laurel's offense.
But while the rest of the Spartans were either passing up open shots or unable to free themselves from pesky Hammond defenders, Williams was making Mamula labor for most of her baskets. And in the game's critical stages, Williams' quick hands and feet turned their personal battle into a mismatch.
"We were nervous about playing a championship game in our first tournament, but I think we all really came together in the second quarter," said Williams, who along with Keiner came to Hammond directly from the successful Columbia Challenge 13-14traveling team.
"We (the Challenge) had a 43-10 record last year,and I came to watch a couple of games here," she said. "I saw a lot of positive things. I saw so much talent. They were just a little laid back. This year, we're stronger and a lot more confident."
Russoechoed that sentiment, and his excitement was centered around Williams.
"A good point guard changes the whole team. We turned the gamearound in that second quarter. We scored more points in that quarterthan we scored in whole games last year," said Russo, who rewarded the team with four days off.
"I'm anxious to see how we'll do in this county, because county teams are much tougher than what we've seen," he said.