WESTMINSTER — Rick Hunt's Hornets didn't look so good losing their St. John Youth Basketball League season-opener in December.
Hunt, who played basketball for Clemson in the early 1970s, described his fifth- to eighth-grade squad's shaky performance in its first game as "total nerves and chaos."
His youngsters seem to have matured, though.
That showed Monday night when they played a crucial late regular-season game against the Hawks at the church gym.
The two teams (9-2) were tied for first in the league's grade bracket West Division and neither had lost since December.
And the Hornets, who had not played together until this year, faced an opponent that had 10 returnees from last year's age-group championship team.
But the Hornets topped the defending champs, 18-15, in a hard-fought contest.
The winners clinched the game on technical foul shots by Mike Fenlon and George Schemm in the final seconds.
The decision gave the Hornets the West Division championship.
Even if they lose their final game and the Hawks win theirs to tie in the standings, the Hornets will be the West titlists because they have beaten the Hawks twice this year.
After the regularseason, the Hornets meet the Bulls, runaway winners in the East Division, in a March 1 showdown for the overall championship.
"I'm just happy to be there," said Hunt afterward.
Not to mention relieved.
He still had jitters during Monday evening's game, which saw theHawks close on the faltering Hornets down the stretch.
The Hawks cut a 14-7 lead to 16-15 as the game wound down, but missed crucial free throws and close-in shots in the final minutes.
Only an inability to capitalize on numerous opportunities kept the Hornets from building a comfortable halftime lead.
Hawks coach Bill Cooper was at a loss to explain at least some of his team's problems.
"We had been an inside-shooting team all year. The last two weeks we haven't. Nobody wants to penetrate," Cooper said.
But he noted a season-longinability to grab offensive rebounds, saying, "We haven't been thereall year."
Hunt said he stresses the defense and rebounding that stymied the Hawks most of the game and "just lets the offense happen."
As it turned out, both legs of that philosophy held up against the Hawks with the offense happening just enough to win.
Morgan Beall's two baskets gave the Hornets a 12-7 lead after the third quarter. Mike Peters' jumper made it 14-7 early in the fourth quarter beforethe Hawks began a belated comeback with Tom Fowler's shot in the lane.
After Fenlon's layup gave the Hornets a 16-11 lead, Fowler hit two free throws and David Middleton hit a baseline shot to make it 16-15 with less than a minute left.
Hawk forward Brian Schroeder then had a chance to put his team ahead when he stole the ball with 25 seconds remaining and drove full court for a layup.
But his shot rolled off the rim and the Hornets then salted it away on technicals.
Afterward, Hunt wasn't thinking too much about the previous game nor the showdown looming in March.
"I'm just too excited," he said with a smile.