Thirty-six seconds stood between the Oakland Mills girls basketball team and its first state tournament berth, and Teresa Waters was worried.
Waters, the Scorpions' coach, had good reason. Oakland Mills was clinging to a 61-59 lead over visiting Howard in Saturday's Class3A Region I title game, when Mia Dammen was whistled for her fifth foul with 36 seconds left.
Oakland Mills had come this far, remarkably, without point guard Stefanie Magro, who had been rushed to Howard County General Hospitalwith severe abdominal pains six hours before game time. Now, the Scorpions would have to hold off the determined Lions -- who had come from eight points down to tie them four times in the final period -- without the other half of their dynamic backcourt.
"I said to myself'Oh my God,' I can't take this team into overtime, not without Mia and not with (Howard star guard) Kristi Greer still on the floor," Waters said.
After Howard had crept to within 61-60 on Sharon Ford's free throw following Dammen's final foul, lightly regarded senior guard Katrina Overton allayed Waters' fears. First, Overton stole a passby Krista Fulton intended for Greer. Greer wisely fouled Overton, who was on her way to an easy layup. But Greer also fouled out on the play.
Overton then stepped up to the foul line and hit the all-important front end of a one-and-one. She missed the second shot. Fulton came down with the rebound, dribbled past midcourt, and threw up a desperation 32-foot shot that fell short of the rim, allowing the Scorpions to escape with a thrilling 62-60 victory.
It was the third time Oakland Mills (22-2) beat Howard (17-8) this year, and it brought back memories of their 50-48 battle in January. That contest also featured a missed shot by the Lions as time ran out.
Besides the stakes that made this rematch more meaningful, Saturday's victory also taught the Scorpions something about themselves. They received their usual top-notch efforts. Dammen (14 points, 11 rebounds, five steals, six assists), playing on a sprained ankle, did a splendid job running the point in Magro's place. Forward Christine Copeland (14 points, 10rebounds) scored four crucial points in the last 2 minutes, 15 seconds. Forward Andrea Romich added 10 points and 13 rebounds.
But thegame in many ways belonged to Overton and senior guard Suzanne Willis. For most of the season, Willis and Overton shared the fifth starting spot. All that changed Saturday when the team found out Magro was in the hospital undergoing tests, which revealed appendicitis. Willisand Overton suddenly became dual starters for the first time this year.
Magro underwent an hour-long appendectomy Sunday and won't be available this weekend. The Scorpions play Catonsville in tomorrow's 9 p.m. semifinal at Catonsville Community College. A victory would send them to Saturday's 3A title game at 8 p.m.
Saturday, Waters wasfaced with the prospect of defeating a tough Howard team for the third straight time with a team far from full strength. Most of the teamdidn't find out about Magro's sudden illness until less than two hours before game time.
"I walked around the gym with them (Willis and Overton) five times before the game talking about what I needed from them," said Waters. "They went out and gave it to me."
Willis stepped up to score a team-high 14 points, including four points in thefinal 2:30. Her two foul shots gave the Scorpions a 61-59 lead with 47 seconds left. Overton scored six points, three of them coming in the last four minutes. More important was her defensive contribution. After the Scorpions went to a box-and-one following Greer's eight-point first quarter, Overton chased Greer all night, and held her to five second-half points, 18 total.
"We played this game for Stef. She's always been there for us," Overton said. "We always talk about playing as a team, and tonight was the first time we actually did it. We proved to ourselves we didn't need her here all the time."
"I didn't want to lose, because we would've had so many what-ifs," Willis said. "What if we had Stef? What if Mia's ankle had been 100 percent?I didn't want to deal with that. I thought it was going to be real close or they (Howard) were going to take us. But we proved we can be a team that doesn't always depend on one or two people."
Howard coach Craig O'Connell saw the Scorpions' control of the boards -- Oakland Mills out-rebounded the Lions 46-30 -- as one critical factor. Theother difference was the play of Willis, Overton and Copeland, who was 2-for-2 from the floor and grabbed three rebounds in limited duty.
"Their peripheral players hit a basket every time they needed it," said O'Connell, who was devastated after the loss. "We fought backthis far and the law of averages said we had to take them. Contrary to what I told my players, I don't know if I'll ever get over it. I was absolutely stunned. We sure gave the fans their money's worth."
The game had the air of a state championship battle, and the final three minutes were pulsating. The Lions, after falling behind, 36-28, at the half -- thanks to a 24-point second quarter by the Scorpions, 10 by Dammen -- fought back behind Fulton, who scored 11 of her 18 points in the second half. They shaved the lead to 48-42 at the start of the fourth quarter, then made an 11-5 run to tie it on Fulton's 15-footer with 2:48 to go.
The Lions tied the score three more times,although they never led. During the final 50 seconds, Dammen, Greer (11 rebounds), and Howard's Emily Petrlik (six points) and Camille Powell (seven points, 11 assists) fouled out.