Hammond girls basketball coach Joe Russo had seen enough of the Golden Bears to know they're good enough to give their competition a hardtime on any given night.
But one question still lingered in Russo's mind.
In a close, tense game, would they be tough enough?
Russo got an encouraging answer Monday night, when Hammond outlasted Atholton in a 53-51 victory that was tightly contested from the opening tip-off. It was the league opener for both teams.
The Bears led by as many as six points -- the game's largest difference -- in the second half before falling behind in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter,then coming back to take a 42-40 lead with 5 minutes, 33 seconds left in the game.
Atholton then rallied to tie the score three times,but couldn't pass Hammond. A three-point play by freshman point guard Kacey Williams gave Hammond a 52-49 lead with 1:32 left.
From there, the Bears passed their composure test, even though they failed to convert on three front ends of one-and-one opportunities that wouldhave put the game away in the final minute. Hammond made up for it by forcing three critical Raiders turnovers. The game ended as Atholton's Juanita Thompson's 23-foot heave from beyond the top of the key missed everything and bounced harmlessly out of bounds.
"We hustled at all times, especially down the stretch. But our composure at theend was the difference in the game," said Russo. "We didn't turn theball over. I knew it was going down to the wire, but once I knew we could play with them, I felt like we'd be all right."
Hammond is quite all right at this point, having secured its position as the county's most improved team. The Bears improved their record to 7-2, and just as notably they did something Russo hadn't witnessed in nearly three years.
They won a county game.
The last time Hammond recorded that achievement was February 1988, when it was winding up a school-best, 24-4 season. Over the next two seasons, the Bears saw how the other half lived, as they won only five games and failed to beat a league opponent.
After the final buzzer sounded Monday night, Russo looked as if he'd just won a playoff game.
"This is exciting. It's such a nice turnaround for the girls," said Russo, who watched theBears shake off a 30-27 defeat to Magruder two weeks ago, when Hammond shot a measly 18 percent from the floor. The Bears hit 19 of 48 shots (39.6 percent) Monday night.
The two newest key pieces in the Bears' suddenly competitive puzzle -- Williams and fellow freshman Sonia Keiner -- left their mark once again.
Williams was alternatelysteady and dazzling with her ball-handling, and she did the most when the Bears needed it most. Of her 12 points, seven came in the fourth quarter. She also contributed six assists and a game-high eight steals.
Keiner, meanwhile, teamed up with senior forward Emily Minah to stifle Atholton down low. Keiner scored a team-high 14 points and had 10 rebounds. Minah scored nine, and took over the boards in the second half, when she grabbed 11 of her game-high 14 rebounds.
Kristen Moraz also matched Keiner's game-high with 14 points, adding seven rebounds. Guard Jennifer Garlick chipped in eight assists and threesteals.
Atholton saw its record fall to 4-4. The Raiders' problems could be traced largely to senior forward Erika Kean's foul troubleand their continuing outside shooting woes. The Raiders shot just 35.4 percent (17-for-48). With the exception of Juanita Thompson (12 points), they rarely made an outside shot in the second half, when Hammond dared them with a variety of zone defenses. Without Kean inside, Atholton's offense struggled.
"We're too inconsistent. We're having too much trouble converting," said Atholton coach Graydon Webster. "We're missing our layups, and everybody gets tentative if we can't get the ball inside. We're wasting too much energy on defense."
Kean entered the game leading Atholton in scoring (16.4) and rebounding (9.4). But she drew three first-quarter fouls and sat for much of thefirst half. Kean then was tagged with her fourth foul 10 seconds into the second half, before eventually fouling out with 5:33 left in the game. After scoring seven points in the first period, Kean finishedwith eight points and three rebounds.
"We battled. We didn't fallapart. We stayed with them and we did it without Erika," Webster said.
Indeed, it was literally anybody's game all night. The contest was marked by 10 ties and 13 lead changes, including seven lead swings in the second half.
Keiner gave Hammond a 34-32 lead with a three-point play at the 5:41 mark in the third quarter. The Raiders missed outside shots on their next two possessions, and Hammond extended its lead to 38-32 on a layup by Minah and an 18-foot swish by Mary Sly.
With 2:32 to go in the period and Hammond holding its biggest lead, Atholton then scored eight unanswered points.
The Raiders cut it to 38-35 at the end of the quarter on a layup by Thompson and a free throw by Kean. Atholton then took a 40-38 lead on follow-up baskets by Vanessa Clack (9 points) and Dana McGraw and a free throw by Kelly Smith. But Moraz quickly tied it at 42-42 with a 17-footer.
Theteams traded baskets once more, before Hammond broke the tie on a free throw by Williams and an 8-foot bank shot by Minah, who grabbed two offensive rebounds before making it 45-42 with 3:52 left. Atholtontied it for the last time at 49-49 on a 15-footer by Smith.
Williams then took a bounce pass in the paint from Garlick, got fouled, but made a tough layup anyway. She made the ensuing free throw to complete the three-point play and give Hammond a 52-49 advantage with 1:32left.
Minah then made a free throw with 43 seconds left and addedtwo steals in the final minute to seal the victory.